May 29, 2022
The U.N. rights chief defended her controversial visit to China, saying she was not in the country for an official investigation on the status of the Uyghur community and urged authorities in Beijing to end their repressive policies.
Michelle Bachelet’s long-planned trip this week has taken her to the far-western region, where Beijing is accused of the detention of over a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, forced sterilization of women and coerced labor.
The United States has labelled China’s actions in Xinjiang a “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” allegations vehemently denied by Beijing which says its security crackdown was a necessary response to extremism.
Bachelet has come under fire from rights groups and Uyghurs overseas, who say she has stumbled into a six-day Communist Party propaganda tour, including a meeting with President Xi Jinping in which state media suggested she supported China’s vision of human rights.
Her office later clarified that her remarks did not contain a direct endorsement of China’s rights record.
Speaking at the end of her trip while still inside China, Bachelet framed her visit as a chance for her to speak with “candour” to Chinese authorities as well as civil society groups and academics.
“This visit was not an investigation,” she told reporters, later insisting she had “unsupervised” access to sources the U.N. had arranged to meet in Xinjiang.
Bachelet said she urged China to avoid “arbitrary and indiscriminate measures” in its wide-ranging “counter-terrorism” crackdown in the Xinjiang region.
She added that the Xinjiang government had assured her a network of vocational training centers – which rights groups say are forced re-education camps – have “been dismantled.”
It is the first trip to China by the U.N.’s top rights envoy in 17 years and comes after painstaking negotiations over the conditions of her visit, which the U.N. says is neither a fact-finding mission nor a probe.
Bachelet this week visited the Xinjiang cities of Urumqi and Kashgar, according to her office, but no photos or further details of her itinerary have dribbled out.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said earlier this week that Bachelet’s activities were “arranged according to her will and on the basis of thorough consultations of the two sides.”
She planned to meet “civil society organisations, business representatives, academics,” her office said, but state media has only covered meetings with Xi and foreign minister Wang Yi, during which he gave her a book of Xi quotes on human rights.
Her trip has taken place under a “closed loop”, ostensibly due to COVID-19 risks.
The United States has reiterated its view that Bachelet’s visit was a mistake after the release of thousands of leaked documents and photographs from inside the system of mass incarceration this week, while the U.K. and Germany have voiced their concerns at the visit.