Following her long-anticipated trip to China, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s statement concerning the treatment of minority groups in Xinjiang prompted strong criticism from commenters on social media and in Western governments.
In a May 28 press conference, Bachelet emphasized that her trip to China was not an investigation but an opportunity to discuss human rights issues with senior officials and “pave the way” for continued talks. She then praised China for its work on poverty and gender equality.
“In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, I have raised questions and concerns about the application of counterterrorism and deradicalization measures and their broad application — particularly their impact on the rights of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities,” her statement said.
Bachelet made a “mockery” of the U.N. Human Rights Office by adopting Beijing’s narrative, said Rushan Abbas, founder and executive director of the Washington-based organization Campaign for Uyghurs.
“Bachelet parrots CCP [Chinese Communist Party] talking points like ‘anti-terrorism’ and ‘deradicalization.’ Co-opting Beijing’s ‘anti-terrorism’ narrative legitimizes China’s genocide,” Abbas said in an email to VOA.
Rights groups and some Western countries accuse China of crimes against humanity that include detaining more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim ethnic minorities in camps and subjecting them to torture, sterilization and forced labor, accusations that China has denied. Beijing has described the facilities as vocational education and training centers.
Following her visit, Bachelet said Chinese government officials assured her that the centers have “been dismantled.”
Social media response
In a tweet, Abbas said that Bachelet neglected her mandate, and she demanded that Bachelet resign.
Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted that Bachelet “should be fired for looking the other way on genocide during her Chinese propaganda tour.”
On Wednesday, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China said in a tweet that Bachelet failed to speak on behalf of “repressed Uyghurs” and urged the U.N. rights chief to release a report on Xinjiang and “speak honestly” at the next U.N. human rights session about how Uyghurs are being treated in China. “Barring that, she should be replaced when her term expires in September.”
Last September, Bachelet said her office was finalizing a report on allegations of “serious human rights violations” in Xinjiang.
Liz Throssell, spokesperson for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, said that as with all reports by the office, once it is final, the “report will be shared with the authorities for factual comments” before publication.
“The report will need to be updated with our interactions and observations from the visit,” Throssell told VOA in an email.
“I thought that she [Bachelet] knows what it is like to be a political prisoner, tortured and tormented for her beliefs and for who she is,” Abbas told VOA. “Therefore, I had some positive expectations of her.”
As a member of the Youth Socialist group in Chile in the 1970s, Bachelet was imprisoned, along with her mother, under Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s military regime. Her father died after being tortured in 1974. She was president of Chile for two terms before being named as U.N. high commissioner for human rights in September 2018.
Last month, after nearly four years of discussions with Beijing and requests for “unfettered access” to Xinjiang, the OHCHR announced that Bachelet and her team would conduct an “official visit to China” that included the cities of Urumqi and Kashgar in Xinjiang May 23-28. The visit was the first by an OHCHR head in 17 years.
Bachelet, however, did not get unfettered access. “Access was limited, in part because of the need for a COVID ‘bubble’ arrangement,” Throssell told VOA in an email, adding that during Bachelet’s time in Xinjiang, she was “accompanied by [Chinese] government officials who were part of the ‘bubble’ and attended all the meetings and visits” with her.
During her visit to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, Chinese authorities announced COVID-19 lockdown measures in the city’s mostly Uyghur district, according to Chinese media.
Western governments’ response
On Monday, the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office issued a statement saying, “China’s failure to grant such access only serves to highlight their determination to hide the truth.”
Germany expressed disappointment and requested that Bachelet’s office publish a report on the situation in Xinjiang “as soon as possible.”
Last Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement saying the U.S. “remains concerned about” Bachelet and her team’s visit and Beijing’s “efforts to restrict and manipulate” her visit.
“We are concerned the conditions Beijing authorities imposed on the visit did not enable a complete and independent assessment of the human rights environment in the PRC [People’s Republic of China], including in Xinjiang, where genocide and crimes against humanity are ongoing,” Blinken said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the accusations of human rights violations in Xinjiang were “lies and rumors” and accused the U.S. of turning “a blind eye and a deaf ear to the facts and truth” about Xinjiang.
“The U.S. rehashed the false claims that had already been debunked countless times in an attempt to smear and attack China,” Zhao said at a press briefing in Beijing on Monday.
He called accusations of a restrictive China visit “new lies,” saying “all the activities and arrangements of High Commissioner Bachelet during her stay in China were decided in accordance with her will and based on full consultation of the two sides.”
On Monday, Liu Pengyu, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, tweeted that Bachelet’s “visit achieved positive concrete results.”
In the past, Beijing, through its state-run media, had said the measures in Xinjiang were “not about human rights, ethnicity or religion” but about fighting “violent terrorism and separatism.”
OHCHR has not announced the release date of the report on human rights in Xinjiang.