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Canada launches global initiative on hostage diplomacy

On Monday 15 February 2021, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Marc Garneau, unveiled a new global diplomatic initiative against the use of arbitrary detention.

The 58 country initiative – titled the Declaration of Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations – is the first major diplomatic initiative that Canada has led on since the landmine ban treaty in the late 1990s.

The initiative is aimed at ending the “unacceptable practice” of nations detaining foreign nationals for diplomatic gain – often referred to as “hostage diplomacy”. Signatories include Japan, Britain, Australia and nearly all members of the European Union.

The virtual announcement will include statements from prominent British human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, Human Rights Watch Executive Director, Kenneth Roth and U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.

While the declaration does not target any nation, it is widely accepted that the text was designed to increase diplomatic pressure on countries that detain foreign nationals – such as China, Iran and North Korea.

Prior to the declaration being formally released, Chinese state-backed newspaper, the Global Times, cited unnamed experts as saying the initiative was “an aggressive and ill-considered attack designed to provoke China”.

Beijing has been accused of arbitrarily detaining two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, following the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive for Huawei Technologies Co Ltd in Vancouver. China insists the two cases are not linked however Canada denounces the detention of its citizens as examples of China using “hostage diplomacy”.

The initiative has stopped short of imposing punitive measures or sanctions on offending states. Instead the agreement intends to collectively call out the practise and shame offenders into changing their ways.

Regardless Garneau believes it is a meaningful step, saying:

“This is an incredibly important moment, when all these countries agree that the practice of arbitrary detention is immoral and illegal. It is something that I think will grow in terms of impact,”

However, writing for the National Post, John Ivison said:

“But naming and shaming is unlikely to have the same coercive impact. The goal of building a taboo around arbitrary detention relies on countries like China and Iran being moved by the diplomacy of shame. The evidence suggests embarrassing China in particular is counterproductive, instead arousing indignation born of national pride..For all its good intentions, the declaration is unlikely to win the release of Kovrig and Spavor”

However, Ivison also notes that:

“Getting 58 countries to agree on the time of day is a feat, far less signing up to implicit criticism of Chinese policy.”

The issue of how to resolve hostage diplomacy situations has been the cause of much deliberation, with states often differing in their approaches.

In December 2020, the UK’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee released a report on Iran’s use of hostage diplomacy and called on the British government to declare Iran’s “arbitrary detention of foreign nationals” as hostage-taking.

In November 2020, the International Observatory of Human Rights hosted a webinar titled “Iran ‘Hostage Diplomacy’: What Next?”. The webinar brought together an expert panel to discuss why this happens and what approaches could be taken.

During the webinar, former detainee Xiyue Wang advocated for increased public shaming of Iran, consistent with the new Canadian initiative. However, all the panelists upheld that this should be alongside new targeted sanctions against individuals directly complicit in the practice.

You can watch IOHR’s webinar here:


In January 2021, IOHR also released a documentary on the issue of hostage diplomacy, which you can view here:

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