As the 2022 Beijing Olympics approach, the plight of Canada’s Huseyin Celil needs to be a clear priority for our nation and government.
In 2000, Celil escaped from his unlawful imprisonment in the People’s Republic of China where he was being held as punishment for his activism on Uyghur political and religious rights. He then followed international protocols, obtaining United Nations refugee status in 2001, then Canadian citizenship shortly after.
In 2006, while visiting family in Uzbekistan, Celil was captured and repatriated to China. There, he was denied access to proper legal representation and sentenced to life in prison on trumped up terrorism charges, despite a glaring lack of evidence.
Although Celil’s sentence has been reduced, he has still languished in a Chinese prison for the last fifteen years. Celil’s wife, Kamila, and four children have been without a husband and father for over a decade. It’s time to pull out all the stops and make every conceivable effort to bring Celil home.
In a recent interview with Global News, Kamila was optimistic about her husband’s future. “I was really happy when the two Michaels landed in Canada … I’m very positive for Huseyin’s case now. I’m very positive. I’m looking forward to bringing him home.”
The recent release of the two Michaels — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — was secured by the United States government through what appeared to be a quid pro quo agreement to release Huwawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who stood accused of financial fraud. Canada played a central role in Meng’s detention, resulting in the retaliatory, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of the Michaels in China.
The fact that the release of Meng immediately resulted in freedom for the Michaels says volumes about China’s view of diplomacy. It’s a transactional process. We give them something, they give us something.
For the Canadian government, diplomatic participation in the 2022 Beijing Olympics is something worth putting on the table in exchange for Celil’s release. A new quid pro quo. Release Celil and Canada will send its diplomats to the Olympics.
The Olympics and refugees
It’s easy to get carried away by the euphoria of the Olympics. A festival with deep nationalistic meanings for governments, it takes the attention of the media and with it millions of people. We’re told to support athletes and, through their medals and records, celebrate Canadian excellence.
But it’s hard to revel in the Olympic spectacle of peaceful internationalism and global friendship from a jail cell.
Canada has already toed the Olympic line for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, evidently buying into claims that the event would improve the human rights landscape in China.
Since 2008, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has embraced refugees as part of the Olympic family. Beginning in 2016, refugees with UN status could apply to compete on a separate Olympic team. If Celil were an athlete, he’d meet the criteria. Unfortunately, the IOC’s decision to recognize UN status refugee athletes came shortly after they’d already granted Beijing the hosting rights for 2022, sending the Games to a nation where refugee status means virtually nothing.
China routinely uses its economic and martial power to coerce other nations into assisting in the repatriation of the country’s refugees. As legal scholar Lili Song shows thorough analysis of China and refugees, the Chinese Communist Party has successfully pressured numerous other nations, including Thailand, Nepal, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Albania, into assisting with the capture and repatriation of Chinese nationals.
China also refuses to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to access and support the thousands of ethnic Kokangs and Kachins fleeing into China from Myanmar, and the hundreds of North Koreans pouring over China’s northeastern border.
A diplomatic boycott could bring Celil home
The IOC has a refugee team. The IOC also has a longstanding relationship with the UN. Yet, China is openly flouting UN protocols when it comes to refugees. This provides a perfect opportunity for the Canadian government to point to the failures of the IOC, UN and China and support Celil’s basic human rights and freedoms. Put pressure on all three.
How? The threat of a firm, unwavering diplomatic boycott of the Games. Lawyer Chris McLeod, who represents Celil agrees — he told me:
“There may never be another opportunity quite like this. The Canadian government can show its support for Huseyin through a diplomatic boycott of these Games. Every time a Canadian athlete competes, Celil’s struggle will be raised in the national and international media. That’s no small amount of pressure and China is very alert to its international reputation. They don’t want the Games to be a platform to ridicule their human rights record.”
As a scholar, I stand with McLeod and Celil’s family. I completely and whole-heartedly support a diplomatic boycott as part of a broader effort to secure Celil’s freedom, but a few voices won’t be enough. Politicians need to speak up.
Olympians and Paralympians can uplift the voices of Celil’s family and supporters by calling for his release over the next four months before the 2022 Olympics begin. Academics, journalists and activists should join in solidarity.
We need to be so loud that the Canadian government can’t help but listen. The Trudeau government, IOC and UN talk a big game when it comes to human rights, undeniably linking the Olympic Games with global peace efforts. Let’s hold them accountable and demand action.
If there is no freedom for Huseyin Celil, Canadian diplomats must stay home. Full stop.