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U.S. Raises Concerns Over U.N. Human Rights Chief’s Visit to China

File photo shows Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP,file)
File photo shows Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP,file)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is raising concerns with United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s recent visit to China, where she explored human rights issues in the country, including what is said to be the detention of at least 1 million Uyghur Muslims in prison-like camps in the region of Xinjiang.

Blinken said in a statement on Saturday the U.S. was “troubled by reports that residents of Xinjiang were warned not to complain or speak openly about conditions in the region” and “that no insight was provided into the whereabouts of hundreds of missing Uyghurs and conditions for over a million individuals in detention.”

“While we continue to raise our concerns about China’s human rights abuses directly with Beijing and support others who do so, we are concerned the conditions Beijing authorities imposed on the visit did not enable a complete and independent assessment of the human rights environment,” he said.

Bachelet, meanwhile, said in a statement on Saturday that she visited Kashgar prison and the Kashgar Experimental School, a former Vocational Education and Training Centre (VETC), inside the Xinjiang autonomous region.

The UN human rights chief said she also visited other locations to get a basic overview of how China is handling the Uyghur Muslim ethnic minority, but she noted this was a high-profile visit intended to spark discussion and dialogue with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), rather than a more discrete investigation.

“The visit was an opportunity to hold direct discussions — with China’s most senior leaders — on human rights, to listen to each other, raise concerns, explore and pave the way for more regular, meaningful interactions in the future, with a view to supporting China in fulfilling its obligations under international human rights law,” she said.

Her visit came after the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation released tens of thousands of leaked files and photographs from Xinjiang, which, among other things, show police guards are trained to shoot detainees who try to escape from the facilities. The organization believes between 1 million to 2 million Uyghurs are detained in the region.

During the visit, Bachelet spoke with leaders and officials in the Xinjiang region, including Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the region’s governor and the vice-governor in charge of public security. She also met with community activists, religious leaders and academics in the country.

Bachelet said she “raised questions and concerns about the application of counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation measures and their broad application,” but she was ultimately “unable to assess the full scale” treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

The human rights leader also pushed China to make giving information to Uyghur family members kept in the dark about where their loved ones are a priority for the government.

Camps detaining Uyghurs in Xinjiang were first reported around 2017, coming after years of terrorist attacks in China. The PRC reportedly told Bachelet during her visit that the VETC program, designed to re-educate the Muslim minority population it had considered extremist, was now “dismantled.”

Bachelet also discussed other human rights issues, including new restrictions in Hong Kong and tensions in Tibet.

Blinken on Saturday said Bachelet’s tour did not give her a full account of what is happening in China, noting she did not get to speak to activists or other non-governmental sources confidentially or speak with anyone from the Xinjiang labor transfer program.

“Survivors and family members of detainees have described cruel treatment that shocks the conscience, including torture, forced sterilization, state-sponsored forced labor, sexual violence, and forced separation of children from their parents,” he said. “We again call on the PRC to immediately cease its atrocities in Xinjiang release those unjustly detained, account for those disappeared, and allow independent investigators unhindered access to Xinjiang, Tibet, and across China.”

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