UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet announced on Tuesday that she has reached an agreement with China for a visit in May, including access to Xinjiang, but made no reference to a long-delayed report into alleged rights violations in the region.
She said that an advance team from her office would leave in April to prepare her stay. It comes after years of stalled talks to gain access to its Xinjiang region to investigate accusations of abuse against ethnic Uyghurs.
Addressing the Human Rights Council, Bachelet said she remained concerned about the treatment of individuals who speak up on human rights issues that are deemed critical of Chinese policies. Some have faced restrictions on their freedom of movement, including house arrest, or in some cases have been sentenced to prison on criminal charges.
“My office has raised a number of such cases with the government and encourage the authorities to take steps to ensure that freedom of expression and opinion are fully respected and protected,” she told council members via a video message.
Rights groups accuse China of widescale and systematic abuses against the Uyghur population and other mostly-Muslim ethnic groups in the north-western autonomous region of Xinjiang, including torture, forced labour, and detention in internment camps.
China has rejected claims of abuse and says that the camps are training and “reeducation centres” to combat religious extremism.
Erkin Tuniyaz, vice governor of Xinjiang, told an event organised by China's mission to the UN in Geneva last month, and cited by Reuters, that the region was thriving and that people had jobs and social security.
Activists urge release of delayed report
Bachelet’s office has been collecting evidence into alleged rights violations for more than three years. The report into her findings – which first needed to be shared with Beijing – has been promised for several months.
Yet there was still no mention of it on Tuesday, amid growing frustration and renewed calls by activists for the long-awaited report to be released.
“We are at a loss as to what is going on...There is just no longer any excuse for this ongoing, long delay,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told journalists at a briefing organised by Association of Accredited Correspondents at the United Nations (ACANU) ahead of the 49th Council session.
In an open letter joined by almost 200 other organisations, Amnesty International urged Bachelet to publish the report “without further delay”.
“The Chinese government’s crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang are well documented, but we are yet to see the situation meaningfully addressed by the UN human rights office,” said Joanne Mariner, director of crisis response at Amnesty International in a statement.
She stressed that its release should not be contingent on Bachelet’s visit to Xinjiang. “No state – no matter how powerful – should be above scrutiny for such grave crimes.”