Former diplomats are urging the federal government to closely monitor Canadian foreign-service workers in China for signs of brain damage and to develop a system to detect sonic attacks.
The warning, during a period of heightened tension between Canada and China, comes after confirmation that some U.S. diplomats who were based in China are suffering from symptoms associated with Havana Syndrome.
Havana Syndrome is the term being used to describe brain damage suffered by some Canadian and U.S. diplomats who were posted to Havana between 2016 and 2018. Fifteen Canadians and more than 40 Americans are being treated for symptoms of the concussion-like syndrome. American victims include some former diplomats and family members who were posted to China.
One of those U.S. diplomats, Mark Lenzi, is encouraging the Canadian government to closely monitor its staff in China for concussion-like symptoms, based on his own experiences.
Lenzi, his wife and other members of the U.S. diplomatic community in Guangzhou, China, suffered headaches, memory loss, nose bleeds and other concussion-like symptoms in 2017. Lenzi said he felt intense pressure in his head and heard a humming noise.
The source of the damage experienced by diplomats in Cuba and China is unclear, but microwave weapons are being pointed to as a possibility. In a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week, researchers said neuroimaging has confirmed that U.S. patients with Havana Syndrome have unique changes in their brains not previously seen, although many of the symptoms are similar to concussions.
There have been no cases of Canadians anywhere but Cuba suffering related symptoms, Global Affairs Canada spokesman John Babcock said.
“Global Affairs Canada maintains a strict security protocol to respond immediately to any unusual events affecting Canadian diplomats or their families posted to a mission abroad,” he said.
Still, former diplomat Charles Burton, a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing, says close monitoring of Canadian diplomats in China for symptoms of brain damage must be a publicly announced high priority for the Canadian government — regardless of any objections by the Government of China.
Burton noted that the causes and sources of Havana Syndrome remain unclear, but because it resulted in the withdrawal of U.S. and Canadian personnel from Cuba it seriously impacted efforts implemented under former President Barack Obama to engage with Cuba. Keeping that distance between Cuba and the U.S. would be in the interest of both Russia and China, he said.
“So whether Russia or China are involved in this operation is an open question.”
But because Americans appear to have been attacked in China, he said, the federal government must make the safety of diplomats and their families there a priority.
Being public and transparent about that support would give Canadian diplomats assurance that the government “is fully committed to protecting them from the apparently permanent brain damage the Havana Syndrome causes,” Burton said.
Pamela Isfeld, president of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, said the issue worries foreign service officers.
“We are concerned about these reports for sure. In general, we think it is up to our employer to do everything that it can.”
Isfel said those concerns are not limited to postings in Cuba or China, but anywhere. “This is an overall health and safety issue. The employer has to make sure people are looked over.”
She said government officials are “engaged on this”. Still, the association of foreign service officers is due to sign a new contract Wednesday that includes, for the first time, a health and safety clause with just such potential issues in mind.
“We are continuing to press to make sure they are doing as much as they can. We think this is something that needs to be pursued with a sense of urgency.”
Daniel Livermore, a former Canadian diplomat who is a senior fellow at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, said the Canadian government should help develop a device to monitor sonic attacks as a precaution.
Relations between Canada and China have been strained since December 2018 when Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom company Huawei Technologies, at the request of the United States, who wanted her extradited. Two Canadians, a former diplomat and a businessman, were detained in China soon after.
This week the parliamentary Foreign Affairs committee met amid reports that the Canadian government put pressure on former diplomats to stop publicly discussing China.
Given the current state of diplomatic affairs with China, Livermore said the issue should become high priority.
“I would be concerned if I was in foreign affairs now. The Chinese are emerging as hardball players on almost every file.”
He said the government needs to assure diplomats how it would respond if something does happen to them or their family members during a posting. That includes exploring, even developing monitoring devices.
“I don’t think the government has done nearly enough.”