Close-mouthed on Tiananmen: It took 26 pairs of eyes to approve just 66 words on the 1989 atrocities

In the end, it was three short paragraphs.

Sixty-six words.

But a statement released by Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion on June 4 to mark the 27th anniversary of China’s bloody crackdown on student demonstrators was reviewed by at least 26 pairs of eyes and underwent multiple revisions, according to email records obtained by the National Post under access to information laws.

A reference to China’s use of demonstrators was added, then . A line urging Beijing to uphold its human rights obligations made the final cut, but was absent for a time in earlier drafts. The government also chose not to echo a call from Americans for a “full public accounting” of the atrocities.

Opposition MPs said Wednesday the seemingly watered-down statement was evidence of the governing Liberals’ tendency to “avoid straight talk” on difficult issues.

“This news is concerning, especially given the fact that the incidents at Tiananmen Square have never been fully investigated,” said Hélène Laverdière, the New Democratic Party’s foreign affairs critic. “It appears as though the Liberals are in fact weakening ’s stance on human rights in China.”

Peter Kent, her Conservative counterpart, said the government needs to press China to explain and apologize for the two-year detention of Canadian Kevin Garratt, freed last month after being accused of spying.

“You have to be forthright and frank when it comes to human rights,” he said.

Kent and Laverdière both noted the release of the statement came days after Dion was assailed for not standing up for a Canadian journalist who was berated by China’s visiting foreign minister after asking about  his country’s human rights record.

But Joseph Pickerill, Dion’s communications director, said the Liberals have “met words with action, including going the extra step to more comprehensively engage China … at the highest levels, including publicly during the prime minister’s press conference in Beijing where it was made clear that human rights and respect for the rule of law are very much on the table.”

Records show Dion’s Tiananmen Square anniversary statement was reviewed by bureaucrats in the Asia branch of Global Affairs Canada, public affairs staff, ministerial staff and the Privy Council Office (PCO).

It stated: “Today, Canadians commemorate the 27th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, the violent crackdown against unarmed and peaceful civilians that occurred on June 4, 1989.

“Under the constitution, citizens enjoy freedom of speech, assembly and . The detention of individuals for exercising these rights runs counter to China’s domestic and international human rights obligations.

“Canada calls upon China to uphold all of its human rights obligations.”

An earlier version condemned China’s “indiscriminate use of civilians in 1989, records show. This wording was approved by Dion’s communications director late on June 3.

“This is good to go, thanks,” Pickerill wrote in an email that night.

The following morning, the reference to the “indiscriminate use of force” was gone. Email threads do not reveal who asked for the or why.

A public affairs said in an email the night before that “undoubtedly,” the minister’s office would be “checking with PMO on this.”

However, a government source said it was the PCO that requested the change.

Records also show the third paragraph, which called upon China to uphold its human rights obligations, also underwent revisions and, for a time, it was dropped.

“At the request of OPD, we have deleted last sentence,” a public affairs staffer wrote the night of June 3, referring to the department’s North Asia branch.

The original wording of the sentence was redacted in the records sent to the Post.

At the request of OPD, we have deleted last sentence

As last-minute revisions were being made, the U.S. State Department put out its own statement. It called for a “full public accounting of those killed, detained, or missing and for an end to censorship of discussions about the events of June 4, 1989, as well as an end to harassment and detention of those who wish to peacefully commemorate the anniversary.”

It went on to express concern about “ongoing violations of human rights in China, including, in the past year, the detention of hundreds of human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, and civil society leaders, and increased restrictions on media content, expression, association, and religious practice.”

Dion’s predecessor, Rob Nicholson, used similar on the Tiananmen Square anniversary in 2015, calling on China to “break its silence on the events … by openly accounting for the people who were killed, detained or went missing and by launching a process of national healing and reconciliation.”

Asked why such language wasn’t used this year, Pickerill said: “We wanted to put an emphasis on the fact that the actual Chinese constitution guarantees a certain number of rights and that we pay particular attention to holding China to account on their own domestic and international commitments and obligations.

“Furthermore, emphasizing the people involved and the Chinese government’s own commitments to them was felt to be more poignant.”

About Douglas Quan