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Michael Kovrig urges unity against hostage diplomacy, as Canada helps craft rules

OTTAWA — A Canadian man who was held in China for nearly three years is calling on governments around the world to co-ordinate sanctions and travel bans on states that arrest foreigners for political reasons.
Michael Kovrig, a Canadian formerly detained in China, is calling on governments to have co-ordinated sanctions and travel bans on states who arrest foreigners for political reasons, through an effort Canada is co-leading to stop countries from feeling emboldened. Michael Spavor, centre left, and Kovrig, centre left, receive a standing ovation in the House of Commons prior to U.S. President Joe Biden's address of Parliament, in Ottawa, Friday, March 24, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — A Canadian man who was held in China for nearly three years is calling on governments around the world to co-ordinate sanctions and travel bans on states that arrest foreigners for political reasons.

"Arbitrary detention creates small tears in the fabric of international law through which innocent people are dragged into darkness," Michael Kovrig said Wednesday at a United Nations forum convened by the federal Liberal government.

"Without co-ordinated advocacy, pressure and negotiation, the sad reality is that I might still be sitting in that cell right now. Many other people, too many, are still trapped in similar political nightmares."

Kovrig said support from Canadian consular officials and the public buoyed him during his detention in China, where he and fellow Canadian Michael Spavor were arrested in December 2018.

China was widely viewed to have detained the men in retaliation for arrest of Chinese tech executive Meng Wanzhou days earlier at the Vancouver airport on a U.S. extradition warrant. They were brought home to Canada in September 2021, the same day Meng returned to China after reaching a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S.

Canada is leading an effort alongside the United States, Malawi and Costa Rica to stop countries from feeling emboldened to pursue arbitrary detention for political leverage.

The effort has so far involved a set of principles in a declaration signed by 72 countries, and an action plan to create consequences for those who arrest foreigners on spurious grounds.

The government of Malawi said it's particularly concerned that states are imprisoning journalists from countries they have disputes with. It cited the case of Russia's detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.

Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said states need to be prevented from taking similar steps, or it will further undermine the rules underpinning global security.

"We cannot allow people to be used as bargaining chips. We must put an end to hostage diplomacy," she said at a Wednesday afternoon event on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.

"The goal is to provide states with clear and effective legal tools to respond to coercive diplomacy."

Kovrig asked those assembled to imagine an experience like his 2018 arrest alongside Michael Spavor.

"What if security forces suddenly burst into this room, seized you, dragged you to the street, threw you in a car, drove you to a secret location, held you under relentless surveillance, interrogation and pressure in a cell, trying to force you to confess to invented crimes?"

Kovrig said he was deprived of adequate food, sunlight, sleep "or anything to occupy your mind."

He said the experience traumatized his family, "because a government wasn't competent, reasonable or ethical enough to pursue its goals through diplomacy, and instead decided to use your suffering to blackmail your country."

Kovrig said the solution is to follow the guidelines of a new report called Citizens for Leverage, co-authored by University of British Columbia professor Vina Nadjibulla, who had advocated for Kovrig’s release.

The report, by the New York-based Soufan Center, calls for governments to establish a central co-ordination point that has the authority and skills to negotiate the release of detainees with minimal concessions.

That involves raising the reputational cost for states who detain people, through governments, civil society and media.

Kovrig said it "meant the world" to him during his detention to know that Canadians and consular officials were working for his release.

He said governments can leverage "intelligence gathering, co-ordinated diplomacy, targeted sanctions, financial penalties, legal action, travel advisories and bans."

Kovrig also said the initiative Canada is leading should help governments document cases and identify “concerned actors" who can share guidance to countries facing this situation for the first time.

International lawyer Amal Clooney told those at the event that sanctioning and putting travel bans on the officials and politically influenced judges has helped speed up the release of some of her clients.

"Autocratic states now outnumber the number of liberal democracies," she said. 

"In the war against truth, arbitrary detention is a powerful weapon. So this is not the time for democracies to bury their heads in the sand or pat themselves on the back."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 21, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press