By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada on Monday launched a 58-nation initiative to stop countries from detaining foreign citizens for diplomatic leverage, a practice that Ottawa and Washington say China and others are using.
Foreign ministers signed a non-binding declaration to denounce what Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau called unacceptable behavior.
"Taking people from their families and using them as bargaining chips is both illegal and immoral," he said by phone, calling the effort the first of its kind.
Other signatories include Japan, Britain, Australia and virtually all members of the 27-nation European Union.
The declaration does not target any nation. Garneau said it was designed to increase diplomatic pressure on countries that detain foreigners as well as others who might want to do so.
But a Canadian official said the initiative had been sparked by concern over arrests of foreigners by China, Iran, Russia and North Korea.
Even before the declaration was formally released, the Global Times, a Chinese state-backed newspaper, cited unnamed experts as saying the initiative was "an aggressive and ill-considered attack designed to provoke China".
Ottawa is locked in a dispute with Beijing, which detained two Canadians in 2018 after Vancouver police picked up a senior Huawei Technologies Co Ltd executive on a U.S. warrant. Canada denounces what it calls "hostage diplomacy" while China insists the two cases are not linked.
Among the signatories is the United States. Last week the State Department called for the release of the two Canadians and rejected China's "use of coercion as a political tool".
The Canadian official said the declaration could help put pressure on Beijing.
"We want to make them feel a little uncomfortable. We want them to know that a lot of countries think this practice is unacceptable and hopefully over time it does contribute to a change in behavior," said the official, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation.
Last December the British parliament's foreign affairs committee called on the government to declare Iran's "arbitrary detention of foreign nationals" as hostage-taking.
British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in 2016 and sentenced to five years after being convicted of plotting to overthrow Iran's clerical establishment.
The Canadian initiative was started last year by Francois-Philippe Champagne, Garneau's predecessor. Champagne, now innovation minister, said by working together nations could better focus attention on the detainees.
"Their liberty may have been stolen but their voices won't be silenced," he said by phone.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren)