UN's Bachelet faces harsh criticism after Xinjiang visit

UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet meets with Chinese foreign affairs minister Wang Yi in Guangzhou ahead of her trip to Xinjiang. (Credit: OHCHR)

As UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet concluded her trip to Xinjiang over the weekend, her observations on China's internment camp system fell short of expectations.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s high profile six-day visit to China wrapped up on Saturday with a virtual press conference for China-based journalists only. A week after a news consortium released the “Xinjiang Police Files”, detailing a repressive system of surveillance and internment of Uyghurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, the UN rights chief’s public remarks were highly awaited. The leaked trove confirmed what several reports had already revealed since 2018 about a sweeping crackdown, torture, sterilisations, forced labour and mass detention of nearly one million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities.

Read also: UN rights chief's credibility in the balance ahead of China visit

Bachelet’s soft words

Bachelet was in Guangzhou, Canton, before spending two days in Kashgar and Urumqi in Xinjiang, where she met with the secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party of the province, the governor and vice governor. She also visited the Kasghar Experimental School, a former Vocational Education and Training Centre (VETC) that NGOs refer to as re-education centers for Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities. It was only halfway through the press briefing that Bachelet made a few pointed criticisms of China’s policy in Xinjiang.

“I share the concerns of a number of UN human rights mechanisms about laws and policies to counter terrorism and radicalism,” she said. The high commissioner stressed the “terrible impact” of violent extremism on communities, but said it is essential that counter-terrorism measures do not lead to human rights violations.

She added: “During my visit, the Government assured me that the VETC system has been dismantled.” She urged local authorities to provide information to the families of Uyghurs whose whereabouts are unknown. For the first time, she mentioned Tibet publicly, stressing the importance of protecting the “linguistic, religious and cultural identity of Tibetans” as China’s grip on the southwestern region tightens.

Bachelet opened the conference by welcoming the “enormous success” of China to eradicate extreme poverty, "ten years before the deadline" set by the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the introduction of universal medical care and almost universal unemployment benefits. This was hardly enough to appease worried human rights groups, which had already warned of the political risks of the visit as the terms imposed by China were kept confidential. Campaigners had urged Bachelet to demand full access to victims and human rights defenders, but overall perceived it as Bachelet “being instrumentalised by China”.

The groups are sceptical that surveillance and internment operations in Xinjiang have been dismantled. Many have pointed ironically to the image of Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, offering Bachelet a book by Chinese President Xi Jinping on the protection of human rights. Signalling the importance of Bachelet’s trip to Beijing, Xi Jinping spoke with her via video conference.

Propaganda trap

Secretary general of Amnesty International and former UN special rapporteur, Agnès Callamard, had harsh words. “The visit of the High Commissioner was characterised by photo opportunities with senior government officials and a manipulation of her statements by Chinese state media, leaving an impression that she has walked straight into a highly predictable propaganda exercise for the Chinese government,” she said in a statement. “The High Commissioner instead should condemn the ongoing gross human rights violations and seek accountability, truth and justice.”

Callamard does not give much credence to the creation of a UN-China working group, arguing that it is no substitute for a real international investigation into Xinjiang.

Raphaël Viana David, in charge of Asia at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), echoes Callamards remarks, fearing that Bachelet is making the same mistakes as many Western states whose bilateral relations with China have ended up as a “public relations exercise”. Arguing that publicly denouncing serious human rights violations in Xinjiang is the only lever that could work on China, Viana David is surprised that Bachelet has not relied on it.

“Bachelet has missed a unique opportunity to lay the groundwork for substantial monitoring of the human rights crisis in China. Her speech highlights her lack of understanding of China's challenges in this area despite the significant evidence gathered by her team,” he said. Bachelet has, in his view, failed the test, undermining the credibility of the High Commissioner's office and “reinforcing Beijing's sense of impunity”.

On Saturday, the High Commissioner defended herself from being too soft on China. She said she had spoken “frankly” to Chinese leaders about the crackdown in Xinjiang on the pretext of fighting terrorism.

Difficult month of June

US secretary of state Antony Blinken issued a statement underlining his concerns. “We are troubled by reports that residents of Xinjiang have been warned not to complain and not to speak openly about the situation in the region.” Blinken added that “we are concerned that the conditions imposed on the visit did not allow for a full and independent assessment of the human rights situation in China, including Xinjiang”.

The high commissioner faces a difficult month of June. The pressure for her to release a report on Xinjiang that has been gathering dust in a drawer since August 2021 will only increase. Criticisms of her visit are likely to resurface at the 50th session of the Human Rights Council, which begins on 13 June. Bachelet should also announce around that time whether she will run for a second term as rights commissioner at the Palais Wilson.

This article was originally published by Le Temps in French. Geneva Solutions has adapted and translated it to English.