OTTAWA (NEWS 1130) — A former Canadian ambassador to China says this weekend’s revival of consular access to the “two Michaels” who have been detained since 2018 is good news for their families, but should not be viewed as a breakthrough.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been jailed in China for nearly two years in what is widely seen as retaliation for Canada arresting Chinese high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou on an American extradition warrant.
Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to China, had internet-based visits with Spavor on Friday and Kovrig on Saturday.
“The Canadian government remains deeply concerned by the arbitrary detention by Chinese authorities of these two Canadians since December 2018 and continues to call for their immediate release,” reads a statement from Global Affairs Canada.
It was the first contact Canadian diplomats have had with the two men since in-person visits in mid-January.
Guy St. Jacques was Canada’s Ambassador to China from 2012 – 2016, and says this prolonged failure to provide access violates an important international agreement.
“Of course this is welcome news. But let’s not forget that China was delinquent because under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, we were supposed to have monthly access to our two Canadians. The fact that we couldn’t have access for nine months is a mystery,” he explains.
“China was and is obliged to provide consular access, and in fact, I don’t see this as a concession from them.”
Beijing’s official reason for denying access was the COVID-19 pandemic, but St. Jacques says this doesn’t ring true.
“At the outset, they said we could not have access because of COVID, but then China claimed they got rid of the disease. I would mention that, in fact, Australia was allowed to contact one of their detainees in the spring,” he adds.
St. Jacques thinks it’s possible the two Canadians’ were ill, even suggesting they could have been infected with the coronavirus.
“Maybe they got the disease and weren’t in good shape and China didn’t want us to know,” he suggests.
Another possibility is that China is still trying to exert pressure on Canada to “free up Mrs. Meng.”
Whatever the motivation, St. Jacques say the move to allow access is good news.
“The meeting took place, and hopefully it will be followed by another one a month from now. Let’s hope that will be face to face.”