Explainer: Parliament passes motion declaring China’s treatment of Uyghurs a genocide

Prime Minister Trudeau and most of his Liberal cabinet did not participate

Federal Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole. (flickr/Erin O’Toole)

A symbolic motion recognising the genocide of Uyghurs in China passed in the House of Commons with a vote of 266-0 on Feb. 22. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the entire Liberal cabinet abstained from the vote.

Tabled by the Conservative Party, the motion stipulates that China has engaged in actions consistent with United Nations General Assembly Resolution 260, also known as the “Genocide Convention.” The motion called on the House of Commons to “recognize that a genocide is currently being carried out by the People’s Republic of China against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.”

Trudeau did not participate in the vote, while other members of the Liberal cabinet were also absent. Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau went on record and abstained from the vote, and later said, “I abstain on behalf of the Government of Canada.”

Following the vote, MPs also passed a Bloc Québécois amendment which called for the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Olympic Games if the Chinese government “continues this genocide.”

Following Monday’s vote, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said, “Our values are not for sale, and Mr. Trudeau needed to send that message today, he failed.”

Garneau issued a statement following the vote, which said, “We remain deeply disturbed by horrific reports of human rights violations in Xinjiang,” adding that the Government of Canada takes any allegations of genocide very seriously and that an international investigation into the allegations should be done.

Trudeau said his government’s reluctance to use the word “genocide” comes out of not wanting to overuse the word and diminish previous genocides and that the term itself is “extremely loaded.” He added that the government will continue to work with international allies on making the right determinations that are based on facts.

The NDP, Bloc, and Green Party also supported the motion, and in a virtual press conference, Green Leader Annamie Paul called for economic sanctions. At the same time, Bloc Leader Yves François Blanchet said in a Feb. 18 press conference that at the very least the destruction of a culture is “a very severe crime.”

They’re known officially as re-education camps, but stories from journalists, human rights organizations, survivors, and even satellite imagery allege they’re more like concentration camps. There are disturbing reports of mass surveillance, torture, forced labour, political indoctrination designed to quash Uyghur religion and culture, and women being subjected to sexual abuse, rape, mass sterilization, forced birth control, and abortions.

China has vehemently denied allegations, saying that camps are “vocational education training centers,” designed to combat terrorism. In a recent interview with the Canadian Press, Cong Peiwu, Chinese Ambassador to Canada denied the allegations of a Uyghur genocide, as well as forced sterilizations, re-education camps, and forced labour in Xinjiang.

He encouraged foreigners to visit Xinjiang and “learn the real situation there” and urged Canada to refrain from meddling in China’s affairs.

“Facts have proven that there’s no genocide in Xinjiang. This is the lie of the century made up by extremely anti-China forces,” said Wang Webin, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry following Parliament’s vote, according to CBC News.

The vote comes on the heels of increasing diplomatic tensions between Canada and China. In Dec. 2018, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on the behest of the United States. That same month, Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested in China on allegations of spying. They have been detained for over two years.

“Canada liberated Europe from the tyranny of Nazism with blood and treasure,” Conservative MP Michael Chong, and sponsor of the motion, recently said in Parliament. “Will this government recognize that a genocide is taking place against the Uyghur people and other Turkic Muslims in China?”