In the ongoing uproar over Vancouver’s “Public Expression” bylaw, Mayor Gregor Robertson says the proposed bylaw needs to be improved, but also hinted at protecting the interests of the Chinese consulate.
He takes issue with “onerous” restrictions in the bylaw such as protest fees, a mandatory traffic management plan, and its potential impact on the homeless, but was quick to add the importance of respecting “international missions’ rights” in accordance with the Vienna Convention.
“We need a recommendation from staff that has been thoroughly researched with international standards to understand what structures can be erected immediately adjacent to the consulate, and what restrictions might be necessary for that based on the international standards and the Vienna Convention,” he told reporters Monday.
Article 31 of the Vienna Convention calls on host countries to protect the premises and dignity of foreign consulates on their soil.
Clive Ansley, a lawyer representing the Falun Gong, which held a 24/7 protest outside the Chinese consulate from 2001 to 2009, says that although he is happy the bylaw is being reconsidered, he sees the mayor’s citing of the Vienna Convention as an “escape route.”
“The remarks coming from Robertson indicate that while they are redrafting the bylaw to meet us in some way and prevent a lawsuit, they are still hoping they’ll find an escape route that will allow them constitutionally to block any kind of protest structures in front of the consulate,” he says.
In a rare statement issued Monday, the Chinese consulate also cited the Vienna Convention, and urged the city to “take effective measures to prevent any activities from Falun Gong and protect the safety, peace and dignity of the Chinese Consulate General.”
The statement also denied accusations that consulate officials had put pressure on the city to remove the Falun Gong protest from in front of the consulate.
Some city councillors and the Falun Gong community were aghast upon learning at a council meeting last Thursday that city engineer Peter Judd had held “confidential” meetings “to get some degree of feedback” from the consulate on the proposed bylaw.
City Councillor Ellen Woodsworth says she was “very surprised” to hear that city staff consulted the Chinese consulate, adding that there has been strong public criticism around it.
“I think a lot of the membership are really speaking out. The media is speaking out. We’re getting emails, very strong emails, against this,” she says.
The bylaw has come under fire for its restrictiveness—in particular because it would ban any kind of protest structures in residential areas. The consulate is located in Vancouver’s upscale Shaughnessy neighbourhood.
Protest a ‘Major embarrassment’
The controversy surrounding the relationship between the city of Vancouver and the Chinese regime began when former Mayor Sam Sullivan ordered the Falun Gong’s long-running protest—which included signs along the consulate fence and a small shelter hut on the grass between the fence and the sidewalk—removed after caving to pressure from the Chinese consulate.
Sullivan maintained the protest violated a city bylaw and went to court to have it dismantled. The BC Court of Appeal later ruled the removal unconstitutional and ordered the city draft to a new bylaw by April 19.
In the case, a former Chinese diplomate, submitted an affidavit to the court outlining details of the methods consulate staff around the world use to silence and defame Falun Gong. Chen Yonglin, a former first secretary for the Chinese Consulate in Sydney who defected from the Communist Party in 2005, said the consulate protest in Vancouver was particularly sensitive, calling it a “major embarrassment to the Chinese Government.”
“Every Chinese Embassy and Consulate, in all foreign countries, has at least one diplomat whose primary job it is to implement the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners who are Chinese nationals with temporary or permanent residency, and citizens of the host country,” he said in the affidavit.
Falun Dafa Association spokesperson Lucy Zhou fears the compelling reason behind the protest—the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China—is being forgotten.
“The persecution of Falun Gong, the torture, the killing, the crimes against humanity—this is a universal human rights issue, it’s not just a Falun Gong issue,” she says. “Dignity is not maintained by using the bylaw to restrict the protestors. Dignity is maintained by urging the Chinese officials to ask their government to stop all their atrocities.”
After the Chinese regime outlawed Falun Gong in 1999, it launched a campaign of persecution against adherents of the spiritual discipline that continues today.