The high commissioner for human rights has repeatedly postponed its release, reinforcing perceptions that U.N. leadership is reluctant to stand up to China.
By Nick Cumming-Bruce and Austin Ramzy
August 25, 2022
A detention facility in Dabancheng, Xinjiang, last year. Former detainees have described physical abuse, mistreatment and hours of indoctrination in official Communist Party ideology. Credit...Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press
GENEVA — The United Nations top human rights official, Michelle Bachelet, has signaled that she might not release a long-awaited report about allegations of abuses in China’s far western region of Xinjiang before she leaves office next week, as she had promised. The delay of that report, which Beijing has worked to block, has already exposed her to fierce criticism from human rights groups.
Four years after academics, activists and independent U.N. experts first sounded the alarm over reports that China had arbitrarily detained more than a million Uyghurs and members of other predominately Muslim groups in Xinjiang, human rights groups have looked to the United Nations to provide an independent assessment that could help hold Beijing accountable and bring some relief to victims and their families.
Ms. Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said at a news conference on Thursday that she was “trying very hard” to meet the end-of-August deadline, which she had imposed herself in June upon returning from an official visit to China in May.
She said a draft version of the report had been submitted to the Chinese government, a standard procedure for her office. They had received “substantial input” from China that had to be reviewed before publication.
Ms. Bachelet said the report her office had prepared would look in depth at the reports of human rights violations, and that her office would take on board only statements of fact in China’s response.
Still, the possibility of the report’s further delay has deepened the frustration of activists and added to their sense that U.N. human rights office has failed in its task of championing the rights of abuse victims.
Michelle Bachelet has repeatedly postponed, with little explanation, the release of a promised report on human rights abuses in Xinjiang.Credit...Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“This is precisely the press conference that China wanted. That’s a response that will do nothing but embolden Chinese authorities and other autocrats around the world,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch. “This is a very worrying sign for the capacity of the U.N. human rights system to challenge powerful states.”
Ten months have passed since Ms. Bachelet’s office first signaled plans to publish the results of its investigation into China’s crackdown in Xinjiang. Ms. Bachelet has repeatedly postponed the report’s release with little explanation — baffling diplomats, rights advocates and even some of her own staff members.
In December her spokesman announced plans to publish the report within weeks, but it failed to appear, reinforcing perceptions of a United Nations leadership reluctant to stand up to China.
Secretary General António Guterres, facing an acute U.N. budget squeeze and a Security Council often paralyzed by division, has avoided public criticism of China, which is the second-biggest contributor to the U.N. budget, a major troop contributor to U.N. peacekeeping, and a crucial partner in his efforts to advance the U.N.’s Social Development Goals.
Ms. Bachelet has mostly confined her comments on Xinjiang to mild expressions of concern over allegations of abuse. On Thursday, she justified delaying the report’s publication, saying she had wanted to prioritize her visit to China, the first by a U.N. rights chief in 17 years.
Demonstrators marched over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in February, ahead of the Beijing-hosted Winter Olympics, to protest China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Credit...Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
But early in her tenure as high commissioner, she spoke of her wish for unfettered access to China and Xinjiang to allow an independent assessment of abuse allegations. In the end, she acquiesced to a state-run tour and adopted China’s terminology to describe Xinjiang’s internment camps as educational and vocational training centers.
Former detainees in Xinjiang have described physical abuse, mistreatment and hours of indoctrination in official Communist Party ideology.
Speaking in her last news conference as the U.N. human rights chief, Ms. Bachelet gave a glimpse of the pressure she has faced in preparing the report when she spoke of receiving “huge numbers” of letters daily over the last year. They included a letter from China, signed by around 40 countries, urging her not to publish the report, Ms Bachelet said.
The text of the letter prepared by China that circulated among diplomatic missions in Geneva in recent weeks warned that the report’s release would “intensify politicization and bloc confrontation in the area of human rights,” undermine the credibility of her office and harm its relations with member states.
Ms. Bachelet acknowledged on Thursday that she had come under intense pressure both from parties that wanted the report to come out and others that wanted it buried. She rejected the notion this had influenced her actions.
“I have been under tremendous pressure to publish or not publish, but I will not publish or withhold publication due to any such pressure,” she said.
China rejects allegations of atrocities in Xinjiang as “lies” and its response to the U.N. investigation reflects Beijing’s concerns about defending its Xinjiang policy from criticism abroad and its determination to deter governments from taking action in the Human Rights Council.
“China sees the United Nations as a body that can legitimize its stances on world politics, and therefore if it goes against what they argue they have been doing in Xinjiang, that is concerning for Beijing,” said Rosemary Foot, a senior research fellow in politics and international relations at Oxford University.