How hard is it to expel a diplomat? Amid Chinese-interference talk, some are asking what Canada has done


Ottawa does not have to provide any evidence to expel Chinese diplomats, or any diplomats for that matter, in accordance with the Vienna Convention, experts say.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly is facing scrutiny after her testimony last week before the Procedure and House Affairs Committee examining alleged Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 general elections.

“If there are any diplomats who violate the Vienna convention or Canadian law, I will never hesitate for a moment to expel them,” Joly told the committee.

“If we have any form of clear evidence of any wrong doing we will send diplomats packing very, very, very quickly.”

But it is not a matter of providing evidence, expulsion is a political exercise and is not required to meet a judiciary standard, one former diplomat said.

What governs how we treat diplomats?

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations is a United Nations treaty that governs the conduct of diplomatic missions and receiving countries.

What does it say about expelling diplomats?

The convention states that countries can “at any time, without giving reasons, prohibit a member of the sending state (persona non grata) from entering or remaining in the receiving State.”

“This person could be the head of mission, member of the diplomatic staff, or any other member of the mission,” reads the 1961 document.

What proof do you need to expel a diplomat?

The UN treaty says no proof is needed.

“It is simply not the case. You don’t need any rationale whatsoever to ask a foreign diplomat or consular official to leave,” Artur Wilczynski told the Star.

“So for Minister Joly to say that is misleading and I think, tries to get the government a little bit off the hook for not making the political call that it needs to, which is to have some kind of consequences for China and its representatives.”

Wilczynski is a former assistant deputy minister at Communications Security Establishment, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa and Canada’s former ambassador to Norway.

“Expulsion is a political exercise, not a legal or a judicial question that meets any kind of evidentiary standard. The threshold for information to make that decision can be relatively low,” said Wilczynski.

What are the potential consequences of expelling a diplomat?

Joly also said last week that it is easier to prevent diplomats from entering Canada than to expel them after they have arrived, and that the question is about how to make sure the government has the evidence to deal with an expulsion.

The minister said that her political opponents were seeking an “easy fix” when pressured about why Canada has not expelled any Chinese diplomats, and said such an action could prompt the retaliatory expulsion of Canadian diplomats from China and pose a threat to Canadians abroad.

“The calculus that intersects here is domestic and international politics. What Joly was saying was that if we expel Chinese diplomats, then China will act reciprocally and expel Canadian diplomats from their country. And she is 100 per cent correct, they would do it,” said Wilczynski.

“You don’t necessarily need to provide evidence,” said Jérémie Cornut, Associate Professor at Simon Fraser University, who has a focus in bilateral diplomatic disputes.

“But you can’t expel a diplomat based on nothing, it would be arbitrary.”

Cornut cautioned against the potential long term consequences of such a decision.

“Expelling a diplomat is a very symbolic gesture, and it will show that the Prime Minister is strong. But it is not wise to expel diplomats based on not enough evidence,” he said.

“When you expel a diplomat, you consider them persona non grata which moves things beyond what we call normal diplomatic relations. You put pressure on the diplomatic relations that could break the relationship between the two countries.”

“When Joly needs to take a stance, she needs to be tough for the domestic audience but she can’t be too tough, because that would anger China and they would retaliate with the same action. Canada can’t afford the same kind of oppositional approach (the U.S. has) to China. Who knows how China will react? (China) is unpredictable.”

What are the arguments to expel Chinese diplomats?

Some say the math is simple.

“Passivity and inaction only enable more brazen interference. And, sorry, but disrupting PRC (People’s Republic of China) interference ops is worth the loss of a 3rd Secretary,” tweeted David Mulroney, Canada’s former ambassador to the People’s Republic of China from 2009 to 2012, after Joly’s appearance at the committee on Thursday.

The RCMP has been looking into criminal activity in “secret police stations” operated by Chinese authorities since last October and has confirmed investigations of specific allegations in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia over the last few months.

Wilczynski argued RCMP investigations into the “secret police stations” surely rises to a threshold of evidence.

China operates 102 “overseas police service stations” in 53 countries, including Canada, to carry out “policing operations on foreign soil”, a December 2022 report by the Spain-based Safeguard Defenders group revealed.

The report claimed the stations are used to conduct clandestine activities, and engaged in “persuasion” operations to force Chinese residents back to China.

“This is where CSIS investigations are really important. If (there are activities that) reach a threshold that is no longer politically acceptable, then the consequences are to expel them,” said Wilczynski.

“The cost of not taking any diplomatic action is greater than the cost of losing a few Canadian diplomats based in the PRC. The lack of diplomatic action emboldens officials of the PRC in Canada and abroad, and creates a sense of impunity that they can do whatever they want.”

What has Canada done in the past?

Diplomats and other foreign representatives have been expelled from Canada in the past, but those were due to events that took place outside Canada and were part of a collective action with Western allies.

In 2018, when Chrystia Freeland was the Foreign Affairs Minister, Canada expelled four Russian diplomats over the poisoning of an ex-spy in Salisbury, U.K. for “using their diplomatic status to undermine Canadian security or interfere with Canadian democracy.”

In 2014 Ottawa ordered nine Russian soldiers participating in military exercises in Canada to leave the country amid Russia’s aggression in Crimea at the time.

In 2012, following a massacre in Houla in which 108 people were killed, including many young children, the Canadian government ordered Syrian diplomats to leave the country within five days.


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