03/22/2013 05:29 EDT | Updated 05/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Canada Should Help Stop Chinese Torture

With Xi Jinping assuming the Presidency of China, some have expressed hope that his tenure will bring reform and change, particularly in the promotion and protection of human rights. At the same time, China's most recent Nobel Peace Prize winter -- Liu Xiaobo -- languishes in prison, and has yet to receive the prize awarded to him two years ago.

I attended the ceremony in Oslo as a member of Liu Xiaobo's international legal team, and watched as the Nobel Peace Prize sat in an empty chair. Liu's wife, Liu Xia, was also absent, having been placed under house arrest as soon as her husband's award was announced. After the ceremony, I joined U.S. Congressman Chris Smith and Dr. Yang Jianli, a former Chinese political prisoner himself, at a press briefing on Dr. Liu's behalf. We explained that his detention for "inciting subversion of state power" -- in other words, calling for increased civil liberties -- something we are now asking President Xi to do -- was not only unjust but illegal under Chinese as well as international law. Sadly, this past December marked his fourth consecutive year behind bars.

Dr. Liu has been an outspoken advocate for human rights in China for several decades, and he has been repeatedly subjected to incarceration, "re-education through labour," and house arrest. In 2008, he co-authored Charter 08, a manifesto calling on the government to uphold rights entrenched in the Chinese constitution and to institute a number of political and economic reforms. Shortly before its publication, Chinese authorities detained him, and he has been in prison ever since, serving an 11-year sentence handed down in 2009.

Dr. Liu's detention -- like that of Liu Xia -- constitutes a breach of international law, specifically those articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that ban arbitrary detention and that guarantee the right to freedom of expression and a fair trial. Dr. Liu's trial lasted two hours, with a mere 14 minutes allocated for his defence, and access for journalists, foreign diplomats, and members of his family was severely restricted. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled that this alone renders his imprisonment illegal. Moreover, the Working Group has declared that Dr. Liu has been detained simply for exercising his right to free expression, and it has rejected the Chinese government's argument that his speech threatens "national security or public order" and can therefore be legally curtailed.

Fortunately, it will be difficult for President Xi to ignore the international advocacy on behalf of Dr. Liu. Indeed, a coalition of 134 Nobel laureates has signed a letter calling for the immediate release of Dr. Liu and Liu Xia. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, himself a Peace Prize winner in 1984, has also launched a grass-roots petition that has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures from people in close to 100 countries. It is encouraging that such activism is intensifying despite the sabre-rattling of the Chinese government directed specifically at the Norwegian Nobel committee, which we hope that Xi will end.

Indeed, the Chinese government had reacted to the Nobel committee's decision not only by confining Liu Xia to her apartment, but by leveling diplomatic threats at Norway. As a result, Norway will be the only European country whose citizens are not allowed to visit Beijing for 72 hours without a visa beginning this year. This is the reaction of a powerful Chinese regime intent on bullying other governments, as well as its own people, but -- like Norway -- Canada and other members of the international community must refuse to be cowed into silence.

Of course, Dr. Liu's case is but one instance of the widespread repression of dissent and disrespect for human rights that continue to exist in China -- and that Xi Jinping must now address -- particularly as his country strengthens economic and diplomatic ties with the West.

Both Human Rights Watch and the US State Department describe a China in which human rights advocates are subjected to police monitoring, detention, disappearance, and torture; the legal system lacks judicial independence and relies heavily on confessions obtained through torture; the media is heavily censored, and journalists -- including foreign correspondents -- who report on restricted topics have been assaulted or killed; religious worship is limited to practices and locations approved of by the government; women are subjected to a variety of abuses including forced abortions; babies have been kidnapped by government workers to be sold for adoption; and ethnic minorities such as Uighurs and Tibetans endure significant repression, including forcible relocation for the purposes of building a "new socialist countryside."

At this pivotal moment in Canada-China relations -- with the inauguration of a new Chinese President said to be more open to the West, and multiple economic deals being struck between our two countries -- we must not permit the continuing plight of Dr. Liu and others like him -- indeed the plight of human rights -- to go unaddressed.

If Canada's relationship with China focuses primarily on ensuring an economic upside -- indeed, if we ignore the Chinese government's gross violations of human rights for economic "net benefit" -- we thereby acquiesce to the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, Liu Xia, and others who have sacrificed not just their livelihood, but their freedom, for the sake of human rights.

Irwin Cotler is the Liberal Justice and Human Rights Critic, Professor of Law (Emeritus) at McGill University, and the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He is a member of Liu Xiaobo's international legal team.