Genocide vote a political gesture that's standard practice in Canada

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Canada flag with Parliament Hill in background. Image credit: tsaiproject/Flickr

Let's be clear regarding this week's parliamentary vote on genocide. It was about what to call what's happening in China, not what to do about it.

So right after the definition was voted in, the Globe's John Ibbitson wrote that the government must now take "measures" which "surely requires severing diplomatic relations, freezing Chinese assets, imposing a strict economic embargo and boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing." Surely?

Are you kidding me? The whole purpose of these garrulous altercations on whether a particular situation is genocide is frequently to detour into intellectual hairsplitting and moral posturing so you can avoid doing anything till you figure out what, if anything, you want to do. That's David Patrick's point in his book Reporting Genocide: Media, Mass Violence and Human Rights, using Rwanda and Bosnia as cases where energy went into deciding if they "qualified." That can be reasonable. These are hard issues.

The vote to move the Olympics from Beijing was a perfect companion. It didn't call for a boycott if the games don't move, which they won't, given the pandemic. It's strictly for show.

Contrast the current Myanmar coup, where the U.S., U.K. and Canada acted swiftly with sanctions against the military leaders. They didn't have a debate on whether it was really a coup, which the military there would have disputed. They knew their raisons d'état and acted on them.

Do you think opposition leaders Erin O'Toole and Yves-François Blanchet are really interested in doing anything about the Uyghur genocide? Even if they are, it's irrelevant. They're using it to hurt Liberals, as per their job description. It was a standard political gesture and wound up entwined with the government counter-gesture: they didn't oppose the motion but didn't support it, leaving them with the hope of salvaging the Chinese market for our bitumen and other resources while not overtly turning their backs on the two Michaels -- after all, Biden might drop the case against Meng Wanzhou, which is dubious and part of Trump's China vendetta.

Personally, I think this was a fairly elegant solution. The opposition parties got to look forceful and principled, which is their lot in a system where the government gets to do nearly all the doing. The government tacitly backed their position, without doing so literally, thus preserving some self-respect and a bit of legroom to deal with China, for whom Canada is basically a gnatlike presence. China gets to act offended, but is perfectly aware of the difference between yapping and doing. And the Uyghurs are no worse off. Or so we hope.

Canada is a master practitioner of this kind of gesture, particularly when it involves human rights. I call as witness our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Ambiguity and hypocrisy are built into its core, by way of the notwithstanding clause. Canadians are guaranteed these rights -- except if some government somewhere, for any reason or none, decides we don't have them after all.

Next month the Supreme Court will finally hear Toronto's case against Doug Ford for interfering in and massively destabilizing its 2018 municipal election, right in the middle of it. When challenged over that, Doug immediately said if anyone tried to stop him he'd invoke the notwithstanding clause. (He did give a reason: because he was elected, so there.) If you have any doubt about how absurd and embarrassing this is, try explaining to someone from another country that our most fundamental rights can be stripped if any provincial leader says so.

Definitions are overrated. No definition ever defined, much less created, any reality it was applied to. Definitions describe how terms are used; the terms get deployed and employed long before their definitions appear. No one needs a definition to recognize and discuss the realities they're faced with. The world might well be better off without them, though lawyers would miss them.

In the case of genocides, David Patrick suggests there are drawbacks to the way the Holocaust became the prototype, since it's atypical in many ways: the explicit ideological justification, the focus on direct physical extermination.

Raphael Lemkin certainly had his reasons when he coined the term in 1943. But like anything with a history, it's sometimes pertinent, sometimes less so.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image credit: tsaiproject/Flickr

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