As the US Fights Illegal PRC Forced Labor, Canada Does Nothing

By Conor Healy, Published Sep 07, 2022, 06:00am EDT

Note: this opinion piece was co-written equally by Conor Healy, Sarah Teich, and Mehmet Tohti. For purely technical reasons, only Conor Healy is shown in the usual author field above.

It is a settled question that China is committing mass atrocities in Xinjiang, known to Uyghurs as East Turkestan, including the widespread use of forced labor. The recent UN report, released with just minutes left in Bachelet’s term, confirmed as much and included as key recommendations that Uyghur forced labor be investigated and tackled. Uyghurs work under the threat of violence in fields and factories throughout the region, and the supply chains of dozens of multinational corporations, including Nike and Zara, are implicated.

The United States has responded with strength, but the rest of the free world have buried their heads in the proverbial sand. If anything is to change, we need American leadership on this issue.

Two months ago, the US Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) banned imports from Xinjiang. In the last two years, even prior to the UFLPA, US border officials have seized over 1,300 shipments from China allegedly made using forced labor. But as America takes action, one of its closest allies is doing nothing. Canada has seized just one shipment, which it ultimately released.

In addition to being a moral and a legal outrage, this squarely affects US interests. Under the USMCA, Canada agreed to prohibit imports of forced labor-made products; its failure to effectively do so creates a potential backdoor into the US market shielded by the daily billions in cross-border trade. This represents a gaping hole in one of Congress’s most important China policies while signaling to the perpetrators of these grotesque crimes that America not only stands alone, but is powerless to stop them.

It is far past time for State Department officials to pursue this issue aggressively with their counterparts to the north. As Canadians, you would be doing us a favor, since this may be the only way to overcome Ottawa’s sheepishness at taking on China of its own initiative. A start would be to push for a ban in Canada, as the US did through the UFLPA, which parliamentarians have already proposed under Bill S-204. At the same time, the US should vehemently object to the Trudeau government’s current approach of supporting only Bills S-211 and C-243. These Bills create only general reporting obligations, which may be a positive development but would not be nearly enough.

Of course, Canada is only a first step. Success with Canada puts the United States in a position to win support with other allies as well, and to counteract China’s false narrative – believed by many worldwide - that America’s Xinjiang policies are about its own selfish interests rather than doing the right thing.

This is what leading the free world looks like, and we desperately need American leadership when it comes to Xinjiang. The alternative is that the UFLPA will end in failure, key provisions of the USMCA will be ignored, and most importantly China will be emboldened by its ability to escape consequences.

Mehmet Tohti is the Executive Director of the Ottawa-based Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project and a prominent Uyghur activist. Sarah Teich is an international human rights lawyer based in Toronto and a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Conor Healy is the Director of Government Research at IPVM.

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