While the tangible impact of a non-binding declaration for countries around the world to stop the use of arbitrarily detaining foreigners to advance state-to-state relations may not be momentous, former diplomats and experts say the symbolic approach is a good first step. The initiative was spearheaded by Canada, which initially had the support of 57 other countries for the declaration, including the United States. Most of the countries are traditional allies of Canada and come from Europe and the Americas. Only three African countries have signed on and Japan is the only Asia-Pacific power to join the declaration apart from Australia, New Zealand, and small Pacific island nations. While Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau (Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Westmount, Que.) said the declaration doesn't target any specific nation, Reuters cited an unnamed Canadian official saying that the initiative was prompted due to recent arrests of foreigners in China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been detained in China for more than 800 days since Dec. 10, 2018, in apparent retaliation for the Canadian arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the United States. In response to the release of the declaration, the Chinese foreign ministry lashed out, saying the declaration “looks more like a confession in which the Canadian side admits its mistake in the Meng Wanzhou case.” “On the one hand, the Canadian side advocates that it adheres to the rule of law, but on the other hand, it acts as an accomplice of the U.S. and arbitrarily detains Chinese citizens,” spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters on Feb. 18. Former Canadian diplomats told The Hill Times that the declaration represents a good entry point to build a coalition against the current practice of using arbitrary detentions to gain advantage over foreign countries. “One of the things that's so difficult in dealing with some of the things that have happened is that you don't have really a community, and so what Canada started to do is build a community,” said Patricia Fortier, a former assistant deputy minister for consular, security, and emergency management with Global Affairs, noting it will require “delicate diplomacy” to move the initiative forward. She said getting binding agreements in international dealings is not done easily. “It would have been quite foolhardy to have tried that.” “The aims are raise awareness and stop the practice,” she said, noting stopping the practice of arbitrary detentions will be a longer term effort with some diplomacy at work. She said while everyone would want more countries to join on, the current declaration support is a “good start.” China, which has detained Canadian Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor for more than 800 days, lashed out after Canada spearheaded the multilateral declaration against the use of arbitrary detentions in state-to-state realtions. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade “In the world of realpolitik, this looks like a good start ... all things start with words, particularly in multilateral diplomacy,” she said. Ms. Fortier said it is important to recognize that the initiative is just not about China. “That may have been the spark, but for those of us who have been dealing with consular work for a while, this is not new and this not just China,” she said. Fellow former diplomat Daniel Livermore, who served as Foreign Affairs’ director general of security and intelligence for five years, said while the initiative won't have a “dramatic impact,” it is a useful “first step” in finding out which countries are backing Canada in the cases of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, which nations Canada can't count on, and which states Canada will have to work on. “This is the first step to flesh out that whole conundrum,” he said. He said the support that Canada has received so far is “alright,” but it isn't a “sensational number.” He said the number of countries usually starts low when forwarding initiatives to build international consensus. “You start with a base and then you start to work your way up if the initiative has promise—and that's a big if,” he said. Mr. Livermore said the declaration isn't going to change a country's behaviour if it is detaining individuals arbitrarily, noting that the declaration is unlikely to have much impact on China. Former Canadian ambassador Ferry de Kerckhove, who served as Canada's envoy to Egypt, Indonesia, and Pakistan, said the initiative is a “nice gesture,” where Canada is trying to recoup some of the “past glory of the Lloyd Axworthy approach on landmines and human security and responsibility to protect.” Mr. Axworthy, a former Chrétien-era foreign affairs minister, championed the legally binding Ottawa Convention, which aimed to eliminate the use of landmines around the world. The convention initially had 122 signatories, and has since risen to 164. But Mr. de Kerckhove said Canada's current initiative likely won't have the same impact, noting there is unlikely to be a UN Security Council or General Assembly resolution in support. “I don't think it's going to have much influence,” he said, noting that some countries may feel the initiative looks like the West ganging up on other groups of countries. “Some other countries may say, 'Listen, look at your neighbour in the south and don't talk to me about democracy behaviour. There's kind of a moral ambivalence into such things.” Foreign affairs expert Kim Richard Nossal, Queen's University professor emeritus of international relations, said the impact of the declaration will probably be symbolic, noting that it is unlikely to change the behaviour from China. “On the other hand if, in fact, the 50-odd countries governments actually decide to make dealing with hostage diplomacy a priority, that may alter the calculation of the government in Beijing about future detentions of foreigners in China,” he said. Prof. Nossal said Canada's use of multilateral initiatives shows the limits of its power. “Canada simply does not have the kind of power to get the government in Beijing to change its mind,” he said. “The only way that the Chinese are going to change their mind on this one it seems to me is through a multilateral —the only bilateral possibility is through the United States and having the Americans find a way to deal with Meng.” Although he noted that a resolution of Ms. Meng's case doesn't guarantee that the Canadians detained in China will be freed. Prof. Nossal said the declaration is a “logical step” towards releasing Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. “The levers that we have—we, Canadians, or we, the West—are exceedingly limited. The reality is this is a larger fight and we are caught in it,” he said. “The Canadian government has tried hard to do what it can there just aren't that many levers,” he said. “I think it's really important to recognize that the levers are incredibly small, and unfortunately for Spavor and Kovrig, they are caught here and they are the pawns in this much, much larger game.” Former diplomat Gar Pardy, who served as Foreign Affairs' director general of consular affairs, said the declaration will accomplish nothing. “There's no action associated with it,” he said. “I think it is a bit of a distraction, unless in effect there is some muscle in terms of people spending the time and the energy to give effect to the ideas that are contained there.” Mr. Pardy said there is a greater need to negotiate cases of arbitrary detentions bilaterally. “This is totally within the authority of the Canadian government to get on and to resolve,” he said, remarking that it is an “absolute mystery” why Canada has not negotiated bilaterally with Beijing for the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. “All of these things are resolved by the payment of something,” he said, noting the possibility of a prisoner swap. “If you say you are not going to pay anything then the price you pay is that people don't come back home.” firstname.lastname@example.org The Hill Times CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the number of countries that have endorsed the declaration. Canada and 57 other countries have endorsed the declaration.