UN rights chief’s credibility in the balance ahead of China visit

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks at a UN debate, 3 March 2022. (Credit: UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré)

Michelle Bachelet is flying out soon to China's Xinjiang province. Questioned for its unclear conditions, the visit puts her credibility at stake, according to Geneva’s human rights community. The high commissioner for human rights rebuts the claims.

First, there was Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the head of the World Health Organization was accused of being too close to China. After a visit to President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in January 2020, he praised the country for its “speed”, “efficiency” and “transparency”. Now another UN agency boss is under heavy scrutiny.

Many view the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s attitude towards China as too accommodating. While she has readily gone on CNN to talk about Ukraine, she remains relatively silent when it comes to China. A group of Uyghurs demonstrated at Place des Nations in front of UN headquarters in Geneva on Friday, urging her to meet with them before her visit to China and postpone it if unhindered access was not ensured.

Since taking office in 2018, she has not issued a single press release on Xinjiang, and only one on Hong Kong in June 2020. A report on the north-western province is still sitting in a drawer of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) without a reasonable explanation, sparking outrage  from human rights NGOs and several diplomatic missions.

In a few days, Bachelet will conduct a highly controversial visit to China, the first for a high commissioner for Human Rights since Louise Arbour’s visitin 2005. While it still isn’t clear whether the former Chilean president will seek a second term as head of the OHCHR, she runs a high political risk by visiting China.

Crimes against humanity

Civil society and the media began reporting on serious human rights violations in Xinjiang, home to a large Uyghur minority, in early 2018. NGOs as well as the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination speak of more than one million people being held in “re-education” camps.

In a 160-page report published in June 2021, Amnesty International said: “Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region face systematic state-organised mass imprisonment, torture and persecution amounting to crimes against humanity”.

“Chinese authorities have built one of the world's most sophisticated surveillance systems and a vast network of thousands of grim 'transformation through education' centres – actually, internment camps – throughout Xinjiang. In these camps, [...] every aspect of daily life is regimented, in an effort to forcibly instil a secular, homogenous Chinese nation and inculcate Communist Party ideals,” the document further stated.

With such a backdrop, Michelle Bachelet’s trip, from 22 to 29 May, is more than just politically risky.  It raises questions about the conditions under which it will take place, with some fearing a “Potemkin” visit.

An “advanced” team of five staff has been on site since 24 April on quarantine. It will leave isolation on 15 May and will have only a few days in the field to prepare for the visit. The scouting team is based in Guangzhou, Canton – an odd choice for a location, more than 4,000 kilometres away from Xinjiang.

According to an OHCHR spokesperson, the team is scheduled to visit the region once the quarantine is complete: “This is to ensure ‘meaningful’ access so that OHCHR can best understand the human rights situation in the country and engage in discussions on issues of importance with a wide range of interlocutors, including senior government and civil society officials.” Bachelet will not have to submit to a quarantine, she said. But it is likely that those who meet with her will have to do so.

These words do not reassure those who fear a “friendly” visit that will only meet Beijing's criteria. Questions abound: Will Bachelet have access to everyone she wishes to meet? Will she be able to meet with interned Uyghurs, without the supervision of government officials? Will she be able to address the issues of Hong Kong and Tibet?

“We don't usually go into detail about the terms of reference,” the spokeswoman said about the conditions of the visit. The team is still working out the final details, but the high commissioner “will engage in a dialogue with Chinese authorities on several human rights issues of a national, regional and global nature, and on the UN 2030 agenda”.

A radioactive report

Over 200 NGOs have warned, however, that “minimum standards must be met for such a visit to be credible [...] to prevent the Chinese government from manipulating it”. Should it go wrong, the trip risks “strengthening the abusers and not their victims. [...] Michelle Bachelet should be able to show a record of standing up to Beijing and not disappointing those who suffer” from Xi Jinping's regime.

Raphaël Viana, Asia programme officer at the NGO International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) in Geneva, does not believe there will be significant results from the trip.

In 2016, Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, visited China for nine days. He had asked Chinese authorities to meet with academics. “None of those meetings were able to take place,” he told Reuters, “and the message I received from the people I contacted was that they had been advised to go on vacation at that time”.

The visit to China cannot be dissociated from the report that the OHCHR has produced and, for the time being, has refused to publish. Raphaël Viana is surprised: “For the last three years, the high commissioner has been silent on the serious violations of rights in China. Yet she has spoken out on many crises around the world. But China is the big exception.”

Bachelet, for example, has called out France for excessive use of police force during Yellow Vest protests as well as the United States for systemic racism issues raised by the death of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The high commissioner rebuts the accusations. “Wherever we think our voice can make a difference, we say it loud and clear. We have done so with the five permanent members of the Security Council and with other states,” she told Le Temps.

“My office has addressed human rights issues related to China, including Xinjiang and Hong Kong, in public and private. We have done so directly with the authorities, with civil society, but also through public diplomacy, speeches, press releases, spokesperson briefings, social networks and responses to journalists. When I visit China at the end of this month, I am actually looking forward to raising these issues in a frank and open way with the authorities and other stakeholders.”

Some diplomats have at times criticised the strong-armed strategy of Bachelet's predecessor, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, arguing that it antagonised states. With Bachelet, “private diplomacy was [prefered]. But the two are complementary,” says Viana. “Now we question the merits of the high commissioner's private diplomacy.”

In his view, it is imperative not to give China a sense of impunity: “China is putting all its diplomatic weight behind avoiding any criticism of human rights, a dynamic rarely seen with such intensity at the Human Rights Council (HRC). Fifty special rapporteurs say it is time for the HRC to take on the China problem.”

The OHCHR report on Xinjiang has been ready since August 2021. Started in 2020, the work includes the findings from investigations conducted by various NGOs and the Uyghur Tribunal, a body of human rights experts and lawyers. But the document is said to be a watered down version.

Michelle Bachelet is said to be unwilling to hear from these NGOs, let alone the grievances raised by the US. The document should have been released in the fall, then in January and then nothing. Numerous diplomatic missions and NGOs complained but nothing happened. The scheduling of the visit to China made its publication more unlikely. The document has become radioactive: if published, it would put the UN seal on the acknowledgment of serious human rights violations in Xinjiang.

Viana is skeptical: “There is a lack of coherence and political courage. Michelle Bachelet's visit risks compromising the publication of the report. If the visit is catastrophic and the report does not come out, the credibility and integrity of the Office of the High Commissioner will be damaged.”

The high commissioner disagrees: “My team and I hope during my visit to discuss and raise with the government of China a range of human rights issues in China, including in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. But as we do with any report from the OHCHR, China, as a concerned state, will be given the report when it is ready to express the government's views and share additional information.”

“Many actors and governments have accused us of being biassed and have pressured us through various means. But the High Commission has strict parameters and methodology [...]. I am not afraid of compromising the independence of the high commission,” she clarifies.

Economic rights over political rights

China and Bachelet’s relationship is underpinned by another factor. China, which has still not ratified the 1966 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has strongly promoted economic, social and cultural rights in the country, frequently stressing that it has lifted nearly 800 million people out of poverty. An issue on which the country finds common ground with Bachelet since the Chilean also favours economic, social and cultural rights. While a perfectly legitimate position, it raises questions about the safeguards that she intends to put in place to protect civil and political rights.

This does not come as a surprise to a diplomat: “It is a shift from Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, who very openly condemned civil and political rights violations in China. This change in focus seems to come directly from UN secretary general Antonio Guterres.”

Bachelet disapproves: “Separating civil and political rights from economic, social and cultural rights is a false dichotomy. All these rights are closely related and interdependent. And no category of rights exists or has any real meaning without respect for the other category of rights. This has been the vision of the OHCHR for decades and it is my vision based on my experience as a human rights defender, doctor, Minister of Health and Defence and finally as president of Chile for two terms.”

Some say that she still acts like the Chilean president she once was: without much transparency, and closely guarded. If Bachelet doesn't seem to be on the same wavelength as Westerners, it is also because of her personal history. As the daughter of an air force general who was tortured by the Pinochet dictatorship, she would have reasons to resent the United States for having contributed to the overthrow of President Salvador Allende.

“As a South American, I am sensitive to the problems related to this region of the world, but also to other countries of the South,” the high commissioner confides.


This article war originally published in French in Le Temps. It has been adapted and translated into English by Geneva Solutions.