The Two Michaels: Blame China and Trump, not Trudeau

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Recent media reports have trumpeted a legal opinion by well-known criminal lawyer Brian Greenspan, who argues that Justice Minister David Lametti has the legal power to circumvent the extradition hearings of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and set her free. This opinion, apparently commissioned by former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour, former Justice Minister Allan Rock and the wife of Michael Kovrig, one of the hostages, was then brandished by a number of former parliamentarians and diplomats in an open letter to the prime minister to argue that the Trudeau government not only can, but should, follow this unsolicited advice, which in their view would be in the national interest. [1]

It is difficult to know what is more concerning here. This sudden resurrection of an idea originally raised more than a year ago, that allowing Meng to return to China would be in the national interest, is wrong-headed and dangerous.[2] Similarly, the implied belief that Mr Lametti, a former law professor who also has access to the advice of a battery of Justice Department lawyers, was unaware of his legal options, is ludicrous. Various comments by supporters of this approach also suggest they believe that releasing Meng is justified by the punitive measures China has imposed on Canadian producers and exporters, as well as by the glaring lack of support for Canada provided by the United States, which requested this extradition in the first place. Surely the only possible response to this last argument is that two or more wrongs do not make something right.  

There are several other obvious points to be made in response to this unfortunate new initiative. First, it is hardly helpful to the government, or to the national interest, since it essentially undermines the government’s arguments about the independence of the judiciary and the inappropriateness of political intervention. Indeed, Chinese commentators have already used Greenspan’s opinion to argue, once again, that Meng should be released, and that her detention is a political rather than legal matter. (Perversely, some of those commentators have also justified the Canadian claim that the two Michaels’ detention is political, since they have suggested that the release of the two Canadians would very likely follow if Meng were allowed to return to China.) 

A second point should be equally obvious. Because something is possible does not mean it should be implemented. In this case, it is clear that the Trudeau government decided long ago that they would not intervene in the extradition process, even if they could. Their underlying rationale for this decision arguably should have been laid out in unmistakable terms some time ago, to head off just such a renewed initiative. But that rationale was made abundantly clear by Mr. Trudeau during a press conference on June 25.  Although expressing concern and sympathy for plight of the two Michaels and their families, Trudeau argued that releasing Meng to obtain their freedom was not only against the national interest, but could actually be counterproductive. “The idea of solving a short-term situation by creating a precedent that demonstrates to China that all they or another country has to do is randomly arrest a handful of Canadians to put political pressure on a government to do what (they) want – even by going against the independence of our justice system – would endanger the millions of Canadians who live and travel overseas every year.”

Giving in to the bullying tactics and hostage diplomacy of China is simply not an option. But neither is China the only culprit in this story. The failure of U.S. president Donald Trump to follow through on a threat to delay his prized China-US trade deal until the two Canadians were released, and his subsequent prolonged silence on the matter while other countries rallied to Canada’s cause, have demonstrated yet again how unreliable and disruptive to the world order the current occupant of the White House has been.  

At the same time there may be a few glimmers of hope. As then Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland noted in 2018, many other countries have supported Canada’s position. “We would also like to express our appreciation to all those who have spoken in support of these detained Canadians and the rule of law to date. This includes Australia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, the EU, the G7 and NATO.”

In 2019, in the absence of presidential leadership, both the American House of Representatives and the Senate tabled motions strongly criticizing the Chinese government for its detention of the two Canadians and urging their release. On June 24, 2020 a cross-partisan group of American Senators issued another strongly-worded statement condemning China for taking the two men hostage, as did Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This second round of criticism comes as the U.S. Congress is deliberating other measures condemning China for human rights abuses of its Uyghur ethnic minority, and even more significantly in terms of potential economic sanctions, for its concerted attack on the independence of Hong Kong and its citizens.

Last but hardly least, the election of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in November 2020 is looking increasingly likely with the Trump administration’s disastrous handling of the COVD-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. This could only be seen as positive boost for the Trudeau government’s position, and for the fate of the two Michaels, who remain innocent victims and pawns in a geopolitical contest not of their making. During a December 2016 visit to Ottawa, when Biden was Vice-President, he told those attending a state dinner in his honour, “The world is going to spend a lot of time looking to you, Mr Prime Minister…because we need you very very badly.”[3] Hopefully as president Biden will remember those words and act accordingly to protect the interests of the Americans’ “most trustworthy and reliable” good neighbour.


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[2] This idea was first raised by a number of former senior Liberals with Canada-China business connections.

[3] Dean Dettioff. “Is Justin Trudeau’s Honeymoon with Canadians Coming to an End?”