SIM Report: Canada launches initiative against so-called ‘hostage diplomacy’

SIM Report: North America, Issue 11

Last month, Canada launched a 58-country initiative calling for an end to the arbitrary detention of foreign citizens in state-to-state relations. The initiative was backed by the US, UK, Australia, Japan, and most EU member states, and came amid heightened diplomatic tensions between Ottawa and Beijing over high-profile detentions of each other’s citizens. The initiative, a non-binding measure, has little practical effect other than to increase awareness of arbitrary detentions and pressure on countries accused of engaging in so-called ‘hostage diplomacy’, such as China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. Responding to the initiative, Chinese authorities labelled it ‘hypocritical and despicable’ and described Ottawa’s use of ‘megaphone diplomacy’ as ‘futile’.

While the US, UK, Australia, and Ireland have all experienced cases of arbitrary detention of their citizens by hostile foreign states in recent years, Canada’s dispute with China has become the most public and contentious case of ‘hostage diplomacy’. In December 2018, Canadian authorities detained the CFO of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, Meng Wanzhou, in Vancouver on a US warrant over alleged fraud linked to the circumvention of Iran sanctions, which Meng strongly denies. Shortly after Meng’s arrest, Chinese authorities detained two Canadian men in China: former diplomat and International Crisis Group employee Michael Kovrig, as well as businessman Michael Spavor. In June 2020, both men were charged with espionage. The arrests precipitated a rapid worsening of relations between Ottawa and Beijing, with each capital calling on the other to release its respective citizens, and China enacting punitive trade restrictions on Canada. As of March 2021, all three detainees remain under arrest, and ties between Canada and China are very strained.

The UK has also experienced a similar case in recent years over Iran’s detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in April 2016. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national, has been severing a five-year jail sentence for spying, despite denials of the charges and repeated attempts from her family and the UK government to secure her release. A similar case involving Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, also detained on espionage charges, was resolved in November 2020 during a prisoner swap with Iran, while in June 2020, Canadian-born US resident Paul Whelan was given a 16-year prison sentence in Russia after being convicted of spying. China, meanwhile, has accused Canada of hypocrisy over the initiative, considering Meng’s detention part of US attempts to damage its tech firms.

Ottawa’s efforts to raise international awareness of ‘hostage diplomacy’ are unlikely to bear fruit immediately. While increased awareness and punitive measures against alleged perpetrators may deter some arbitrary detentions, countries worldwide will continue to link individual consular cases to broader diplomatic ties. This means that rival states’ detention of each other’s citizens will continue to impact commercial and political relations, particularly if the charges are seen as false, exaggerated, or lacking legal merit. For foreign corporates, the risk of arbitrary detention poses a significant and plausible threat to staff and operations. This threat is highest when staff, including executives, travel between countries with a history of hostile or poor relations, such as the US and China or the UK and Iran. Corporate security and travel managers should take steps to minimise the risks to staff, including avoiding travel during periods of heightened diplomatic tensions and ensuring staff carry a valid visa for the purpose of their journey. Staff should also conduct periodic wellbeing checks with in-country travellers.

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