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On Monday, March 22, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada coordinated with the European Union in sanctioning China over their treatment of Uighur Muslims in their country. This move begs the question: why did this policy take so long to be enacted? 

The Uighurs are a minority Turkic-Muslim population located mainly in northwestern China who have recently become the target of Chinese monitoring and detention. Starting in 2016, the Chinese government was found to have been creating “re-education camps,” or facilities in which they captured and imprisoned the Uighurs. China spent a long time denying that their camps were actually being used for malice. Instead, China asserts that the prisoners were simply being re-educated because some had become “extremists,” although no such evidence exists. In 2018, the Chinese government finally acknowledged that these places existed and were not for re-education. They said they were imprisoning individuals for low-level crimes and vocational training. However, anecdotal accounts completely reject this notion. 

In 2019, U.N. representatives sent a letter to the U.N. High Commissioner explaining their concern with the large number of Uighurs being imprisoned, and the fact that the Chinese government was violating human rights laws. During former President Donald Trump’s administration in September 2019, the U.S. finally spoke up and condemned China’s actions on an international scale. Critically, former President Trump himself said in the summer of 2020 that he had been holding off on sanctioning China over their treatment of the Uighurs for the past year to preserve trade talks. This leads us to the question of where we should morally draw a line between our economic prosperity and human rights abuses happening in other countries. 

It is no secret that economics and global politics play a massive role in domestic politics, but this issue highlights how far will some countries, specifically the U.S., will go to protect trade talks and economic negotiations when human rights abuses are transpiring every day. The protection of human life and preservation of human rights must be the utmost priority. 

One major goal of the Biden administration must be to build back the U.S.’s image on the international stage after world leaders both literally and figuratively laughed at Trump and the country. From Trump criticizing NATO to taking the U.S. out of the U.N. Human Rights Council, our international reputation has taken a hit. 

While President Joe Biden did return the U.S. to the United Nations Human Rights Council, this is not enough. Taking a firm stance on human rights would set the ball in motion for the U.S. to come back as a key player in the international community. Joining in on these sanctions is a step in the right direction, but it would be even better if the U.S. decided to stop doing business with companies associated with Uighur labor, such as Nike, Amazon, Gap, Adidas and many more. 

Biden should call on the U.S. Senate to fast-track and pass H.R.6210, the Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act. This act, which passed the House of Representatives on a bipartisan 406-3 vote, ended up stalling in the Senate committees. If Biden is truly committed to ensuring Uighurs in China are treated fairly and better protected, he must use the bully pulpit of the presidency and place a magnifying glass on this issue for the world. 

The time to favor economic benefits over the internment of hundreds of thousands of individuals and human rights abuses is over. We as a society need to recognize that our economy and individual monetary success pales in comparison to the livelihood of individuals we may not personally know. It is imperative that as we continue to pressure the Biden administration about the human rights of people of color in this country, we do not forget that his influence goes far beyond just these 50 states. If Biden takes a firm stance on defending the Uighurs, we can finally say our president is working for everyone. 

Shubhum Giroti can be reached at sgiroti@umich.edu.