Former Detainee Urges Global Sanctions Against Nations Exploiting Political Tensions


After enduring a three-year detention in China, a Canadian man, Michael Kovrig, has raised an urgent call for governments worldwide to unify in imposing sanctions and travel bans against nations that exploit political tensions to arrest foreigners. According to Kovrig, such arbitrary detentions create loopholes in international law, dragging untold innocents into an obscure fate.

Addressing a United Nations forum organized by the federal Liberal government, Kovrig expressed his concerns. “Without unified advocacy, persistent lobbying, and strategic negotiation,” he said, “I might still have been confined in that cell. Numerous others, unfortunately, remain ensnared in similar political nightmares.”

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During his prolonged imprisonment, Kovrig appreciated the support from the Canadian consular officials as well as the public. Both he and another Canadian, Michael Spavor, were arrested in China in December 2018. The international community largely believed that their detention was a retaliatory act against the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese tech executive, who was arrested on U.S. extradition charges mere days before at the Vancouver airport. The two Canadians were released in September 2021, coinciding with Meng’s return to China after a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S.

Canada, in coordination with the United States, Malawi, and Costa Rica, is spearheading a campaign to deter nations from employing arbitrary detention as a political bargaining tool. As part of this initiative, seventy-two countries have signed a declaration endorsing a set of principles and an action plan to penalize those who arrest foreign citizens on unwarranted pretexts.

Of special concern to Malawi is the apprehension of journalists on conflicting terms with the imprisoning nations, as exemplified by Russia’s detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. Melanie Joly, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, articulates the gravity of the situation, pointing out the vital importance of discouraging such acts to preserve the rules of global security.

Vividly recounting his arrest in 2018, Kovrig appealed to those present at the forum, underlining the unimaginable ordeal of being abruptly hauled off by security forces to a secret location where traumatic surveillance, incessant interrogation, and pressure to admit non-existent crimes become part of daily existence. He spoke of the deprivation of necessities and the enduring trauma that marked his family, all because a government chose to resort to exploitative means than diplomatic ones to achieve its ends.

To prevent these injustices, Kovrig proposed adherence to the guidelines stipulated in ‘Citizens for Leverage,’ a new report he co-authored. The solution includes establishing an authorized central coordination point competent at negotiating detainee releases with minimal concessions.

As Kovrig vouched, governments can leverage numerous means including intelligence gathering, coordinated diplomacy, targeted sanctions, financial penalties, legal action, travel advisories, and bans to stand up against this violation of human rights. He believes that the proposed initiative led by Canada could provide vital assistance in documenting cases and identifying helpful actors to guide nations confronting this situation for the first time.

While echoing these sentiments, renowned International lawyer Amal Clooney highlighted the effectiveness of sanctioning and imposing travel bans on influential officials and politically biased judges. However, she emphasized that as autocratic states now exceed the number of liberal democracies, complacency is ill-advised. In this ongoing war against truth, arbitrary detention is a formidable weapon. As democracies, burying our heads in the sand or patting ourselves on the back isn’t enough; significant action is critical.