Canada, the United States and a coalition of 56 other countries have endorsed a non-binding declaration denouncing the state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign nationals for political purposes.
Released on Monday, the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations “aims to protect citizens of all countries who live, work and travel abroad”.
“This illegal and immoral practice puts citizens of all countries at risk and it undermines the rule of law. It is unacceptable and it must stop,” Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said in a statement.
The declaration came amid Ottawa’s continuing efforts to free two Canadian men imprisoned in China since 2018.
Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, a businessman, were detained in December of that year after Canadian authorities arrested top Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on an extradition request by the US, where she faces fraud charges.
China has accused Kovrig and Spavor of spying and dismissed accusations the pair was detained in retaliation for Meng’s arrest. Her extradition case is still before Canadian courts.
Even before the declaration was formally released, the Global Times, a Chinese state-backed newspaper, cited unnamed experts as saying the initiative was “an aggressive and ill-considered attack designed to provoke China”.
But Canadian officials said that while ending the imprisonment of Kovrig and Spavor remained the country’s top priority, the new declaration was meant to be a broad denunciation of the coercive practice around the world, including in North Korea, Iran and Russia.
“It is totally unacceptable if citizens from our country go to another country, either to visit or to work there, that they have to live in fear that they could become a bargaining chip,” Garneau said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US “wholeheartedly” endorsed the declaration and called on “all like-minded countries to work together” to pressure nations to end arbitrary detention and release individuals who are detained.
“It’s time to send a clear message to every government that arbitrarily detains foreign nationals and tries to use them as leverage: this will not be tolerated by the international community,” Blinken said in a statement.
In a video published on Twitter, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also said arbitrary detention not only violates the human rights of individuals, but also undermines trust in government institutions.
“Countries around the world must work together to counter the unacceptable use of arbitrary detention of foreign and dual nationals,” he said.
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, pointed to the Kovrig and Spavor case as one that epitomised the “despicable practice” of arbitrary detention.
He also noted China has subjected Australian citizens to similar tactics.
Last week, China said it had formally arrested Cheng Lei on charges of spying. The Australian, who was a high-profile presenter with state broadcaster CGTN, suddenly disappeared six months ago.
Other signatories of Monday’s declaration include France, Australia, Germany, Malawi, Sweden and Panama.