Ottawa weighs shelving Chinese rights dialogue: Beijing warns of 'serious' repercussions if annual talks put on ice


BEIJING, OTTAWA -- The federal government, under heavy criticism for its ineffective talks with China over human rights, is debating whether to proceed with the "human-rights dialogue" as planned this fall.

The annual event was a centrepiece of the previous Liberal government's policy of engagement with China. But many members of the new Conservative government are sharply critical of China's human-rights record and are seeking a tougher approach.

The dialogue was launched in 1997 as part of an agreement between the two countries when Canada decided not to co-sponsor a resolution about Chinese rights violations at the United Nations human-rights commission in Geneva. It is an annual event, usually lasting one or two days, in which Canadian and Chinese officials discuss an agenda of human-rights issues.

It has been assailed by a coalition of Canadian human-rights groups, which is calling for its temporary suspension and reassessment. And a study by a Canadian professor found that the dialogue is largely a propaganda exercise, intended by China to defuse foreign criticism.

While federal officials did begin preparations for the talks about six weeks ago, there is still no date set, and the normal consultations over the agenda have not yet begun. The delay is seen as a hint that the Tories are reconsidering the event.

A senior government source confirmed yesterday that the government is looking for a stronger mechanism. The source said the dialogue might still be held this year, but could be replaced in future.

A parliamentary subcommittee, headed by Conservative MP Jason Kenney, will also hold a hearing Tuesday to review the annual talks. Mr. Kenney, who acts as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's parliamentary secretary, is a strong advocate of more actively advancing the human-rights cause in China.

The coalition of human-rights groups had sought the review for five years, but were snubbed until the Conservatives took power.

A popular Chinese newspaper warned this month that Canada would face a "serious diplomatic problem" in its relations with China if it cancelled the dialogue. The Beijing-based Global Times newspaper told readers there were "cold winds blowing" from a "behind-the-times" government in Canada.

The Harper government has been badly divided on its China policy, with its caucus and cabinet split between those who want to emphasize human rights and those who want to give priority to trade.

At a closed-door consultation with key groups on Oct. 19, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay and International Trade Minister David Emerson heard criticism from Canadian business leaders and academics who warned that Canada's relationship with China is suffering neglect and damage because China is increasingly unhappy with the policy vacuum and the negative signals from Conservative MPs who seem to favour Taiwan over Beijing.

Mr. MacKay, however, gave no indication that the Conservatives would announce a new policy as long as they remain in minority.

In a letter to the government this month, a coalition of a dozen human-rights groups and other China-related organizations said the human-rights dialogue should be "temporarily suspended" because of China's recent crackdown on human-rights defenders and because the Tory government has failed to develop a new China policy.

The coalition, citing a detailed study by Brock University political scientist Charles Burton, said there are "substantial shortcomings and failings" in the dialogue, launched by the previous Liberal government in 1997, and argued that it should be delayed until the government responds to the Burton report.

Mr. Burton, who has been invited to testify to Mr. Kenney's parliamentary subcommittee, concluded that the dialogue is plagued by "pervasive cynicism" and "dialogue fatigue." Most of it is scripted in advance and has "little connection" to realities on the ground, he found.

The event has gradually been downgraded by Beijing and does not even involve the right officials, because the Chinese side is represented by Foreign Ministry officials who have no involvement in human rights, Mr. Burton found.

Carole Samdup of Rights & Democracy, part of the rights coalition, said a suspension would be "good news" if it means a serious rethinking. "The dialogue, in its current form, does not serve human-rights interests," she said.