Speak – or Remain Silent?

What do you do when you see an injustice? Do you publicize it? Attempt to correct it? Confront those responsible?

What if in doing so you make the situation worse? What if innocent people are harmed by your corrective measures?

For Canadian Parliamentarians this isn’t an academic question. On Monday they voted in favor of a motion that says China’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim population is a genocide as defined by the United Nations.

China’s ambassador to Canada denounced the vote beforehand, saying Canada’s Parliament has no right to meddle in China’s internal affairs. China is practicing counter-terrorism measures, he says, not genocide.

The unanimous vote (with the Prime Minister and his cabinet absent) is unlikely to do anything to help the Uighurs. China has made it clear it doesn’t care what the world thinks of its treatment of minorities. Without serious sanctions, which would hurt a world addicted to cheap Chinese goods as much as it would hurt China, that attitude is unlikely to change.

Arguably, nothing the Canadian Parliament can say or do would make things worse for the Uighurs. But China is holding two Canadians as political prisoners in a separate dispute (which is too lengthy to address today). This vote is unlikely to do anything to better their situation, and may indeed make it worse.

That, I am sure, was in the minds of those Parliamentarians who voted on Monday – and in the minds of those who chose not to be present. They were presented with a no-win situation.

Do you vote to censure China, knowing that there could be direct punishment of Canadian citizens in that government’s power? Or do you stay silent in the hopes of protecting the men known to Canadians as “the two Michaels.?”

The United Nations has wrestled with the question of international sovereignty. Are there limits to what a country can do within its borders? Starting in the 1990s, the Canadian government began promoting the concept of “responsibility to protect,” something adopted unanimously by the United Nations in 2005.

Under this convention, countries have the responsibility to speak out against injustice, to use diplomatic and non-violent measures to persuade an offender to mend its ways. That is what Canada has done here.

What would you do in such a situation? How would you vote? Could you vote for the motion, knowing China would probably take out its anger on your citizens it holds hostage?

Would it be better to stay silent, perhaps working quietly through diplomatic channels? Or is it better to let the world know just how unacceptable the Chinese treatment of this minority is?

We live in a world with many injustices, some big, some little. When do you speak out? Are you prepared to pay the price that comes with doing so?

Are you prepared to pay the price for silence?

One comment

  1. “Are you prepared to pay the price for silence?” I think this is the right question; may we have the right answer.

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