China tells Bachelet not to publish Xinjiang report in ‘act of desperation’

Michelle Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights at a a press conference at a 50th session of Human Rights Council, on 13 June 2022. (Credit:UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré)

China has circulated a draft letter with diplomats asking UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet not to publish her long-awaited report on human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

The Chinese-authored draft text, first reported by Reuters and seen by Geneva Solutions, expresses “grave concerns” about the rights chief’s report on the autonomous region of Xinjiang in western China, where the Muslim Uyghur minority is reportedly being targeted and detained in forced-labour camps.

“The assessment, if published, will intensify politicisation and bloc confrontation in the area of human rights, undermine the credibility of the OHCHR, and harm the cooperation between OHCHR and member states. We strongly urge Madame High Commissioner not to publish such an assessment,” the leaked document reads.

The former Chilean president has come under intense criticism for sitting on a report into the human rights situation in Xinjiang and what has been interpreted as a lenient attitude towards the Chinese government, with her visit to the country and Xinjiang in May only fuelling outcry.

Bachelet disputed this in an op-ed published by Le Temps, arguing that she had “avoided being drawn into geopolitical tensions and that is one of the reasons why I wanted this opportunity to talk directly with the Chinese authorities”.

After announcing that she would not seek to renew her term as rights chief for personal reasons in June, Bachelet promised to release the report before leaving office.

A spokesperson of the high commissioner, who declined to confirm whether Bachelet or her office had received the letter, told Geneva Solutions that “the report is being finalised and final steps are being undertaken prior to public release, including sharing with the concerned member state for its comments before publishing as per standard practice”.

Attempts to quash report

While it is not clear if the letter was actually sent to its intended recipient, rights campaigners say they wouldn’t be surprised over such a move.

John Fisher, Geneva director of Human Rights Watch, called the letter “absurd” and an “act of desperation” by a country that “for years has been hostile to its critics and is now trying to prevent evidence of its sweeping rights abuses coming to light”.

The document calls on the rights commissioner to respect “sovereignty” and states  that “Xinjiang-related issues are China’s internal affairs”, an argument often used by China and other countries at the Human Rights Council to fight back against human rights oversight.

“China seeks to avoid its human rights obligations by describing all of its human rights issues as internal affairs, overlooking the fact that the whole purpose of the human rights system is to uphold international standards and to prevent human rights violations through monitoring and reporting of the situation within countries,” Fisher said.

There are no signatures under the entitled “joint letter”, but a diplomat told Reuters his country had endorsed the letter. The rallying up of other countries to China’s cause worries observers.

“That China would want to quash the report is not news, but that it would get other governments to help them do so, is,” said Sarah Brooks, programme director at the Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights (ISHR).

Brooks stressed that Bachelet should not allow the revelations of attempted influence “to become a distraction”, but should focus on releasing the much delayed report promptly so that “the international community can have the facts and take appropriate action”.