By John Feng
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 13, 2021. Bachelet is set to visit Chinaâ€™s Xinjiang region in May 2022 in order to verify reports of human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other mainly Muslim ethnic minority groups.FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
China has cautioned the United Nations not to allow its top human rights official to be exploited for political gain as its advance team landed this week ahead of a planned visit to Xinjiang.
Michelle Bachelet, the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights, has sought access to inspect conditions in northwest China for the past year. Last month, her office announced it had secured a trip for May.
An advance team arrived in Guangzhou in south China on April 25 to prepare for Bachelet's visit. The group is quarantined in line with the country's strict COVID-19 regulations, U.N. Human Rights Office spokesperson Liz Throssell told Newsweek. "Once out of quarantine, the team is also due to visit the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region."
"In countries where the UN Human Rights Office does not have a presence, it is standard practice for a preliminary technical mission to be deployed ahead of a possible High Commissioner visit. This is to ensure the meaningful access that would enable the Office to gain a clear understanding of the human rights situation in the country and engage in discussions on relevant issues with a wide range of stakeholders, including senior Government officials and civil society," she said.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, confirmed during a regular press briefing in Beijing that Bachelet was set to visit next month, although a precise date was not given. It's unclear whether she will have to undergo the weeks of mandatory quarantine required of other foreign travelers.
"The goal of the high commissioner's visit is to promote exchange and cooperation. We are opposed to political manipulation by exploiting the matter," Wang said as he outlined Beijing's position on the sensitive issue once more.
Last June, when Bachelet told the Human Rights Council that she intended to visit Xinjiang to verify "reports of serious human rights violations," China's mission to the U.N. warned the official to "stop making erroneous remarks which interfere in China's sovereignty."
"The visit should be a friendly one for the purposes of promoting exchange and cooperation, and not to conduct an investigation under the presumption of guilt," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said at the time. "We oppose any political manipulation and the use of this issue to pressure China."
Bachelet's trip is a long time coming. Three months after announcing her intention to visit Xinjiang, having failed to agree upon access, she said her office would compile a report anyway, based on available information. The document would provide her assessment of the growing body of research and testimony on China's treatment of Uyghurs and other mainly Muslim ethnic minority groups.
She told the U.N. she would publicize the report by the end of the year, but it's yet to emerge six months later, despite insistence by the United States and others.
In January, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported an understanding struck between Beijing and Bachelet: she could visit Xinjiang if she waited until after the Winter Olympics and if she didn't frame it as an inspection. Chinese officials also requested that she delay the publication of her assessment until after the games, the paper said.
The Human Rights Office said it couldn't provide a timeline for the report's release.
The Chinese leadership is accused of a years-long campaign of repression against Uyghurs that began in the middle of the previous decade. More than a million members of local ethnic minorities are said to have been interned in mass detention centers as part of what the government says is counterterrorism work.
Survivors have described confinement in so-called "re-education" camps that strip them of their cultural identity, while women recounted sexual assault and forced sterilization. All are subjected to forced labor in Xinjiang and other provinces in China, rights groups say.
The U.S. has assessed that China's repressive policies amount to "genocide" and "crimes against humanity," charges that carry specific implications in international law. Earlier this month, a report by the State Department said human rights abuses against Uyghurs and others were ongoing.