U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet raised more questions than answers on Saturday after what was supposed to be a fact-finding mission to Xinjiang, the Muslim-majority part of China that’s been subject to mounting human rights concerns.
Bachelet admitted that the only prison she visited in Xinjiang was not one in which Uyghurs convicted of terrorism or political crimes are held. Those are the charges most commonly meted out by the Chinese authorities to anyone in the region who spoke up against the country’s high-handed approach to their communities.
She also didn’t see any operating internment camp — as Chinese officials told her all the so-called “vocational training centers” have closed down.
Activists wanted more from what is the first trip to China by a U.N. top official on human rights in nearly two decades, especially following the release of the striking dossier known as the Xinjiang Police Files containing shocking images of life inside those facilities. Bachelet is set to be scrutinized over whether her trip — also featuring a video call with Chinese President Xi Jinping and a physical meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi — would turn into material for Chinese propaganda.
The situation in Xinjiang has prompted the U.S. and Europe to impose sanctions on local officials as well as embargoes against products made in the region, due to concerns of forced labor.
While Bachelet said she asked Beijing officials to “rethink” certain policies, she was also complacent about what she said she managed to achieve during the trip.
“I would say that, to that prison, the access was pretty open, pretty transparent. We asked many, many questions, and they answered all of them,” she said, though “the majority” of the prisoners were “not necessarily linked to” terrorism or extremism.
“Of course, being part of a bubble because of the COVID-19 restrictions, we could meet some people and not everyone,” Bachelet said. “But with the people we were able to speak to, it was in an unsupervised manner.” She made no mention of what human rights groups say is a pervasive use of surveillance technologies by the Xinjiang government.
Human rights activists slammed Bachelet for failing to stand up to China.
“The world’s leading human rights diplomat just failed to challenge the second most powerful government on earth over some of the gravest crimes under international human rights law,” said Sophie Richardson, China Director of Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, describing herself as “appalled and alarmed.”
“It is unacceptable to fail to robustly investigate crimes against humanity happening on her watch — and during her visit,” Richardson said.
Luke de Pulford, coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said Bachelet “hit all the wrong notes.”
“She allowed Beijing to use COVID as an excuse for failing to investigate, and used Beijing’s framing of anti-terrorism measures, which the anti-Uyghur atrocities most definitely are not,” de Pulford said. “The whole debacle represents an appalling dereliction of duty and betrayal of Uyghurs.”
Amid criticisms, Bachelet said she hoped her trip would effect change in Beijing. “I hope that my visit will encourage the government to review a number of policies to ensure that the human rights would be fully respected and protected,” she said.
Xi, though, reminded her in their call that China wouldn’t need external lectures.
“When it comes to human rights issues, there is no such thing as a flawless utopia,” Xi said. “Countries do not need patronizing lectures; still less should human rights issues be politicized and used as a tool to apply double standards.”