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U.S. Undersecretary Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya, pictured in Ottawa on March 12, says the U.S. has been holding talks with allies, to take stronger action to curtail imports of Chinese goods produced from forced labour.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Washington would welcome Canadian collaboration on curbing imports of goods from China made from forced Uyghur and Tibetan labour, the U.S. State Department’s top human-rights official said Tuesday.

Uzra Zeya, undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, also said the United States would like to see Canada consider joining in a travel ban on Chinese officials implicated in forced assimilation of Tibetan children.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Zeya said the U.S. has been actively holding talks with allies, including Canada, to take stronger action to curtail imports of Chinese goods produced from forced labour.

She noted the U.S. not only has an “absolute prohibition on the importation of goods made with forced labour,” but passed a law in 2021 that presumes any goods from China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang are made from coerced labour of Muslim Uyghurs.

“We think the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is a very powerful tool in our diplomatic arsenal to hold perpetrators of forced labour to account and to really protect the integrity of our supply chain,” Ms. Zeya said.

Under this U.S. law, importers must demonstrate that these products are not made by workers in forced servitude. If they can’t, shipments from the region are blocked. Canada has no law that establishes the same presumption.

“This is a robust monitoring and accountability effort that is truly whole-of-government,” Ms. Zeya said.

Canada committed to barring imports manufactured with forced labour as part of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the free-trade deal that replaced NAFTA. But as of Tuesday, Ottawa had not stopped a single shipment of these goods from coming into Canada since the agreement went into effect in July, 2020.

Ms. Zeya said the U.S. has a lot of experience in identifying goods produced from forced labour and would be willing to collaborate with Canadian authorities to prevent these products from coming into North America.

“Countering forced labour is an important area of U.S.-Canada collaboration and it is something that we have carried forward in the broader G7 framework together,” she said. “We are certainly at the ready to share our experiences, our good practices in this case to help our Canadian counterparts tackle this phenomena that really knows no borders.”

Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley recently complained that Chinese companies have responded to the U.S. ban by sending goods made in Xinjiang to Canada and Europe instead.

The Global Slavery Index, produced by the Australian philanthropic foundation Walk Free, estimated in a 2018 report that more than $18.5-billion in goods imported annually into Canada are at risk of having been made with forced labour at some point in their supply chains, including clothing, computers, smartphones, gold, seafood and sugar cane.

Ms. Zeya said the U.S. is also concerned that China has moved hundreds of thousands of Tibetans from rural areas to low-wage jobs in construction and manufacturing. China insists the practice is nothing more than “vocational training centres” but the United Nations said it amounts to forced labour.

Ms. Zeya, who is also the Biden administration’s special representative on Tibet, said the world needs to shine a light on the Chinese government’s repressive assimilation policies in Tibet, including efforts to co-opt Tibetan Buddhism and a vast system of state-run boarding schools, not dissimilar to former Canadian residential schools for Indigenous children.

More than one million children have been removed from their families and sent to schools where they are prohibited from learning their own languages and cultural heritage.

The U.S. has slapped travel restrictions on officials from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) implicated in forced assimilation of Tibetan children, but so far no other country, including Canada, has joined in this effort.

“We were the first country to initiate visa restrictions on PRC officials involved in this ongoing coercive system,” Ms. Zeya said. “We would welcome other governments pursuing similar measures but this is a decision for every government and every system to make on their own.”

Ms. Zeya noted that Canada is home to the one of the largest Tibetan diasporas outside of Asia. On Wednesday, she said, the U.S. will co-sponsor a Canadian-led event at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on the preservation of Tibetan culture.

Ms. Zeya was in Ottawa to speak at a conference on Tibet and to meet top Canadian officials, including Nathalie Drouin, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national-security and intelligence adviser.

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