Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt supposedly roasted President John F. Kennedy’s inaction on civil rights by wishing the author of the 1956 Pulitzer-prize-winning Profiles in Courage would show less profile and more courage. A crack that surely also applies to our prime minister, a fearless social justice warrior when there’s nothing to fear but a bit of a coward when the going gets tough. For instance on this Uyghur genocide business.
Politics lends itself to complicated jokes because it lends itself to devious maneuvers. And I suspect the Opposition, by bringing a motion to recognize that China is committing a genocide against the Uyghur people, were motivated as much by desire to embarrass the administration as to help the victims. Which I concede wouldn’t be easy. But as Malcolm Muggeridge wrote of an earlier genocide, in Ukraine in the 1930s, “Whatever else I may do or think in the future, I must never pretend that I haven’t seen this.” Cabinet just did, with all but one skipping the vote that passed 266-0 Monday with more than 80 Liberal MPs supporting it.
I don’t want to get sidetracked here by the common misleading phrase “Trudeau government.” But l’etat n’est pas lui. In Canada we do not elect a man on horseback to rule for four years sustained by various cronies while a bunch of clowns conduct a circus in Centre Block that nobody watches. Rather, the ministry we do not elect holds office only while it commands the confidence of a majority of the MPs we do elect.
This one still seems to. It does not appear this was a “confidence motion,” which is not a matter of someone saying the magic words but of whether a ministry that loses such a vote can still pass its program. Including the budget this administration has failed to present for years as part of the ongoing usurpation of authority.
Nor is it clear what meaningful steps cabinet could take against the Chinese regime if they wanted to or, at Parliament’s insistence, had to try. But it is clear that in their capacity as MPs, despite Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau’s highly improper attempt to abstain “on behalf of the Government of Canada” and as if abstaining weren’t already cowardly, Trudeau’s ministry literally hid.
An argument can be made for opposing the motion. Perhaps not politically. But intellectually and geopolitically. Namely, first, that the appalling mistreatment of the Uyghurs does not amount to genocide because there are neither death camps nor other forms of mass killing.
By this standard there have been only a few genuine genocides in the 20th Century, from the Armenians in 1915 through the Holodomor and Holocaust to Rwanda in 1994. But not even Mao Zedong’s, Kim Il Sung’s or Pol Pot’s hideous slaughters, which neither targeted nor disproportionately struck particular ethnic, religious or national groups.
Before you throw a rock, I am not making this argument, merely discussing it. Including the plausible response that Chinese Communist brutalities in Xinjiang fit the widely accepted legal definition. Which in turn raises the possibility that the widely accepted Genocide Convention legal definition, namely various specified “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part,” a particular group, does not correspond with popular understanding. It might even tend to diminish our horror at the “major” genocides. (Or, indeed, that we also need a word for intentional mass killings motivated by other hatreds including socioeconomic.) But if governments do not like a legal definition they need to confront it directly, not ignore it.
As of course they must the reality behind the definition. Which raises the callous-sounding but important geopolitical argument that, whatever moral horror we feel at foreign atrocities, the job of the Canadian government is to protect Canadians. It has neither the capacity nor the mandate to remake the world, so only if confronting human rights abuses abroad matters to the safety of its own citizens should it act.
To which one may, in turn, reply that domestic repression and foreign aggression are actually two sides of the same coin. If a regime that attacks its own people will probably one day attack ours, it is our business and we need a plan.
Unfortunately all these things are beside the point if you have no guts. And our leaders do not. The cabinet did not say “No, it’s not genocide” and vote nay. Or “Yes, it’s genocide but we can’t do anything about it” and vote aye, or nay. Even though in 2019 the prime minister said Canada had committed genocide against Aboriginals and, incredibly, that it continued to do so on his watch. Yet he didn’t have the courage to say whether or not China is doing it.
Even Trudeau’s ankles pose beautifully for the cameras. But you never hear him say something intentionally controversial like “Wow, the world’s a dangerous place, we’re gonna have to cut social programs to do some real defence spending.” Or “The Chinese regime is so nasty we’re boycotting the Olympics.” Or “repression is horrible but we can’t stop it.”
Some profile. Some courage.