Diplomatic Briefing

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Newsline: Canadian diplomatic staff in Cuba may have been affected by mosquito gas, not ‘sonic weapon’

Canadian researchers say they may have identified the cause of a mystery illness which plagued diplomatic staff in Cuba in 2016. Some reports in the US suggested an “acoustic attack” caused US staff similar symptoms, sparking speculation about a secret sonic weapon. But the Canadian team suggests that neurotoxins from mosquito fumigation are the more likely cause. (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-49770369) So-called “Havana syndrome” caused symptoms including headaches, blurred vision, dizziness and tinnitus. It made international headlines when the US announced more than a dozen staff from its Cuban embassy were being treated. Cuba denied any suggestion of “attacks”, and the reports led to increased tension between the two nations. In July, a US academic study showed “brain abnormalities” in the diplomats. The Canadian team from the Brain Repair Centre in Halifax thinks it now has the answer. Canadian diplomats were affected by similar reactions to US counterparts – though the study noted that the symptoms of the Canadians were more gradual than the “acute, directional… auditory stimulus” in some of the US cases. The study notes that tests carried out on 28 participants – seven of whom were tested both before and after being posted to Havana – support a diagnosis of brain injury acquired by diplomats and their families while in Cuba. The patterns of brain injury “all raise the hypothesis of recurrent, low-dose exposure to neurotoxins”, the report said. Specifically, the results were “highly suggestive” of something called cholinesterase inhibitor intoxication. But the low, consistent doses the researchers believe were delivered are consistent with exposure to commercial pesticides, the study’s authors said. And fumigation in Cuba increased after the country “declared war” on the Zika virus in 2016, spraying gas around or even inside diplomats’ homes.

Newsline: Canada accepts China’s nominee for ambassador after choosing its own envoy to Beijing

Canada has accepted the nomination of a new Chinese ambassador, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters on Thursday, describing the move as a step forward amid a major dispute between the two nations. Her remarks are another indication that diplomatic relations might be warming up between the two nations after a crisis erupted last December. China, furious that Canadian police arrested a senior Huawei Technologies Co. executive on Dec. 1 on a U.S. warrant, has blocked imports of meat products and canola seed from Canada and charged two Canadian men with spying. Freeland was speaking a day after Ottawa unveiled business consultant Dominic Barton as its new envoy to Beijing, filling a post that had remained empty for eight months. Beijing recently nominated foreign ministry official Cong Peiwu to be the ambassador in Ottawa. “China has now announced its new ambassador to Canada, so this is a positive step,” Freeland told a televised news conference in Waterloo, Ontario. “Both countries now have new ambassadors who have been accepted. And that does give us another step forward in this relationship,” she continued. (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/09/06/world/politics-diplomacy-world/canada-accepts-chinas-ambassador/#.XXJ1Po1RU8o) In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang earlier said Cong would take up his post in due course. “China-Canada relations have encountered serious difficulties. The responsibility lies completely with the Canadian side, and Canada knows it clearly,” he told a regular media briefing. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday reiterated his government’s position that China’s detention of the two Canadians was unacceptable.

Newsline: Canadian Consulate suspends travel to China for Hong Kong staff

The Canadian Consulate in Hong Kong said it has suspended travel to mainland China for local staff, just days after an employee of the city’s British Consulate was confirmed to have been detained in China. The Canadian Consulate, in an email to Reuters, did not provide a reason for the travel restrictions. (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-protests-canada/canadian-consulate-suspends-travel-to-china-for-hong-kong-staff-idUSKCN1VD095) On Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry confirmed that Simon Cheng, an employee of the British mission, had been detained in the border city of Shenzhen neighboring Hong Kong. Hong Kong has been gripped by anti-government protests for weeks, with China accusing Britain and other Western countries of meddling in its affairs.

Newsline: Chinese embassy says ties with Canada suffering ‘gross difficulties’

China’s embassy in Canada says bilateral ties are suffering “gross difficulties” and is repeating its demand for Ottawa to release Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. Relations have been icy since Meng was detained in Vancouver last December on a U.S. warrant. China has since charged two Canadians with spying and halted imports of canola seed and meat products from Canada. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday said his government had no intention of backing down in the dispute and would defend Canada’s interests. In a statement, the embassy said, “We will always defend Chinese and China’s interests, too … China-Canada relations now suffer gross difficulties and the Canadian side knows very well the root cause. (https://globalnews.ca/news/5798702/chinese-embassy-says-ties-with-canada-suffering-gross-difficulties/) “Canada should release Ms. Meng Wanzhou immediately and ensure her safe return to China, and bring bilateral relations back onto the right track,” the statement continued.

Newsline: Chinese embassy tells Canada to stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs

China’s embassy in Ottawa warned Canada to stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs a day after the country issued a joint statement with the European Union in defense of the “fundamental right of assembly” for Hong Kong citizens. Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters rallied peacefully in Hong Kong on Sunday in the 11th week of what have been often violent demonstrations in the Asian financial hub. On the eve of Sunday’s rally, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said: “Fundamental freedoms, including the right of peaceful assembly … must continue to be upheld.” (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-canada-hongkong/chinese-embassy-tells-canada-to-stop-meddling-in-hong-kong-affairs-idUSKCN1V80OO) The Canada-EU statement also expressed concerns about the escalation of violence and encouraged engagement by all sides to ease tensions.

Newsline: Canadian government reinstating some visa services at embassy in Cuba

The Canadian Embassy in Havana is reinstating some visa and biometric services after months of pushback from Canadians and Cubans. Starting Aug. 1, Cuban residents will again be able to get the fingerprints and photos needed for applications done at the embassy, as well as drop off passports and pick up visas at the building. (https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/visas-embassy-cuba-havana-1.5226806) Early this summer, the government announced it was suspending services like visa and permanent residency processing in Havana due to unexplained illnesses among Canadian and U.S. diplomats dating back to the spring of 2017.

Newsline: Foreign diplomats in Ottawa continue to be fast and furious drivers

Foreign diplomats in Ottawa make lousy criminal masterminds. Also some of them continue to be fast and furious drivers, not learning from past mishaps. If there’s a theme to the latest report on diplomats caught breaking Canadian laws, it’s the small-potatoes nature of so many of them. This isn’t international intrigue on a James Bond scale; it’s often petty larceny, vandalism, and making too much noise. The dumbest crook on the list is a diplomat who was left in charge of finances at his country’s high commission. That turned out to be a bad choice. He kept making big overpayments to a telephone or internet provider. Then the diplomat would call the company and say: Oops, I overpaid, and ask for a refund — payable to himself personally. The company found this suspicious and called police. Global Affairs called the head of the country’s mission here “and, following that discussion, has taken the further step of temporarily withdrawing (the man’s) accreditation while he is out of the country, thereby preventing his return to Canada” while his boss decides what to do about him. The man’s name, and the country’s, are deleted from the report. (https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/spears-foreign-diplomats-in-ottawa-continue-to-be-fast-and-furious-drivers-documents-show) There was a single-car collision with a high commission’s vehicle: Not a big deal — except the driver was already facing a charge of stunt driving at the time (which means travelling at more than 50 km/h above the limit). He’s the son of a diplomat. His high commission has provided a waiver of diplomatic immunity, meaning he must face the stunt-driving charge in court. Then there’s the ambassador who was pulled over for making too much noise in his car and for not having his licence plate fully visible. He wasn’t charged, but police report he committed two more “moving violations” — while they were talking to him. Canada asked one country to call a diplomat home, and it did. The person had been caught driving impaired once, promised to stop driving for the rest of his posting in Canada, and was stopped driving while impaired a second time. He’s gone now. Meanwhile the son of a diplomat has completed a voluntary one-year suspension from driving after he was stopped while allegedly impaired and refused to give a breath sample. He has his licence back now. And another diplomat’s son recently pleaded guilty to stunt driving and paid a fine. We’ve seen quite a string of sons of diplomats and stunt driving in the past year. One embassy’s diplomat was charged with dangerous driving and refusing to provide police with a breath sample. He promised not to drive any more, and in the meantime his posting to Canada expired last month.