Beijing, China: The US said that based on an understanding of restrictions, the UNHCR chief will be subjected to in China, it was unlikely she would see anything substantial and called on Bachelet to release her report on the persecution of Uyghur in Xinjiang.
At the same time, in an open letter signed by more than 40 legislators from 18 countries, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China accused China of organising a “Potemkin-style tour” that risked undermining the credibility of Bachelet’s office.
They also warned that restrictive measures China has imposed to tackle dozens of outbreaks of Covid-19 could also be used to limit Bachelet’s movements and meetings.
The US Permanent Representative to UN institutions in Geneva, Ambassador Sheba Crocker said on March 10 that any interference in the work of Bachelet’s team would support alleged rights abuses against members of the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang and others, as per local reports.
Crocker said a credible visit by the UN human rights chief and her team should involve access to “the locations where atrocities and human rights violations and abuses” have been reported. The UN human rights chief six-day visit (May 23) includes a visit to the Xinjiang. Bachelet, has repeatedly voiced concern about allegations of widespread abuses in Xinjiang. But she has also been criticised for not taking a tough stance with China.
That the Bachelet trip has been long in the offing with requests for “meaningful and unfettered” access by the US to Xinjiang raises questions on whether China will merely go through the motions for the UNHCR chief and give her a guided tour or show her the reality? The latter being unlikely, the indications are that a high-profile visit will end with a whimper, instead of a bang.
Recall that even the UN had admitted in 2018 that a million Uyghur had been held in “counter-extremism centres” and “re-education centres”. The visit marks the first trip to China by a UN human rights chief since Louise Arbour travelled in 2005.
Sophie Richardson, Director, Human Rights Watch China said in a statement that it defied “credibility that the Chinese government will allow the High Commissioner to see anything they don’t want her to see, or allow human rights defenders, victims and their families to speak to her safely, unsupervised and without fear of reprisal.”
Rights groups also claimed that term of the UN Commissioner’s visit had not been disclosed and they have voiced concern that Chinese authorities, who have always insisted they were only interested in a “friendly visit”, could manipulate the trip.
In January 2022, the South China Morning Post had reported, citing sources within the Chinese Foreign Ministry that Bachelet would be allowed to visit Xinjiang in the first half of 2022 after the Winter Olympic Games, on the pre-condition that the visit should be ‘friendly’ and not framed as an investigation.
This comes at a time when the US has accused China of genocide in Xinjiang, and an unofficial and independent UK-based tribunal has ruled (9 December 2021) that Beijing is indeed guilty of genocide.
The UK Uyghur Tribunal has cited birth control and sterilisation measures carried out by the Chinese state against the Uyghur as the primary reason for reaching its conclusion. Sir Geoffrey Nice, who chaired the tribunal hearings, said its panel was of the opinion that China had carried out “a deliberate, systematic and concerted policy” to bring about “long-term reduction of Uyghur and other ethnic minority populations”.
According to Sir Nice, the panel believed senior officials including the Chinese President Xi Jinping bore “primary responsibility” for the abuses against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
“During her visit, the High Commissioner is due to meet with a number of high-level officials at the national and local levels,” Bachelet’s office said in a statement, adding that she would “also meet with civil society organisations, business representatives, academics, and deliver a lecture to students at Guangzhou University.”
In March 2022, nearly 200 rights groups had demanded that Bachelet’s office release its long-postponed report on the rights situation in Xinjiang. “The release of the report without further delay is essential, to send a message to victims and perpetrators alike that no state, no matter how powerful, is above international law or the robust independent scrutiny of your office,” the 192 groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, demanded, as per reports.
There is a narrative and information war between the West and China on human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Human rights campaigners have accused the Communist Party of China of committing widespread abuses in Xinjiang in the name of security, steps which include confining people to internment camps, forcibly separating families and carrying out forced sterilisations.
For its part, China has said these facilities are “vocational skills training centres” that are necessary to “counter” extremism and improve livelihoods. Chinese officials said in late 2019 that most “trainees” had “graduated” from the centres.
A study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published in 2020 however, found the detention network was bigger than had initially been thought and expanding. Using satellite imagery, witness accounts, media reports and official construction tender documents, ASPI said it had identified more than 380 “suspected detention facilities” in the region.
Xinjiang is therefore once more in the spotlight. The issue is whether the visit of UNHCR chief to the region, though significant, will yield any substantive results. Two reasons can be adduced for this conclusion.
First, the Chinese have already whitewashed the record on the persecution of Uyghur thoroughly and second, they will not let Michelle Bachelet see the reality of Uyghur existence. Given this it seems likely that the visit will be used by China as a communication victory.