Rights groups are pressing the UN to release an overdue report on Xinjiang and to press for meaningful access.
By Alim Seytoff and Roseanne Gerin
The headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights named Palais Wilson, honoring the former US President Woodrow Wilson, are seen in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 8, 2018.
With an advance team for the United Nations human right’s chief’s visit to China next month in the country to prepare for her long-awaited tour, Uyghur activists and other rights groups are pressing for a meaningful investigation of atrocities in Xinjiang and the release of a delayed U.N. report on the region.
The five-person delegation invited by the Chinese government was quarantining in Guangzhou before moving on to Xinjiang, U.N. human rights spokesperson Elizabeth Throssell told the South China Morning Post this week.
Once out of quarantine, they are “due to visit the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” Throssell told the Hong Kong daily.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular news conference that an advance team from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had arrived in China to prepare for an inspection tour by U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.
“What I want to tell you is that the goal of the high commissioner’s visit is to promote exchange and cooperation,” Wang said. “We are opposed to political manipulation by exploiting the matter.”
After years of negotiations with Beijing about her visit, Bachelet, a former Chilean president, announced that she had “recently reached an agreement with the government of China for a visit” in May, including to Xinjiang, where China is accused of having incarcerated 1.8 million Uyghurs in mass detention camps.
China angrily rejects all such claims as politically motivated attacks on its security and development policies in the vast western region. Beijing is calling for a "friendly" visit by the U.N. rights official, the kind that rights experts fear would help China whitewash the situation.
The advance team will be expected to ensure “meaningful access” and try 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,” Throssell told the SCMP.
Doubts about access
Bachelet first announced that her office sought an unfettered access to Xinjiang in September 2018, shortly after she took over her current role. But the trip has been delayed over questions about her freedom of movement through the region.
She would be the first human rights commissioner to visit China since 2005.
The Campaign for Uyghurs (CFU), a Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur rights organization, welcomed the news that Bachelet’s team had arrived in Guangzhou, but doubted that she would be given unimpeded access because China had refused a visit unless the trip was “friendly” in nature.
CFU said the Chinese government has given no sign that Bachelet will be allowed unimpeded access.
“While I welcome news that the high commissioner’s visit is seemingly moving forward, I am concerned that this is another tactic to delay the release of her report on Uyghur genocide until her term expires,” CFU executive director Rushan Abbas said in a statement issued Monday.
“Her visit is contingent on COVID restrictions, and she may spend weeks in quarantine moving from city to city, hampering her ability to investigate,” Abbas said.
The World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and other European-based Uyghur organizations will hold a protest in front of the United Nations compound Geneva on May 13 to demand the immediate release of the overdue human rights report on abuses in China’s Xinjiang region, the Germany-based activist group said Tuesday.
WUC is teaming up with Tibetan and other international rights groups to call on Bachelet to issue the report and to consult Uyghur groups in exile and former internment camp detainees ahead of her planned trip to China.
Activists will stage a two-hour protest outside Palais Wilson, OHCHR's headquarters.
“We have been waiting for the release of the high commissioner’s report since September. Why has it been delayed?” WUC president Dolkun Isa said in a statement. “We are calling on Ms. Bachelet to consult with Uyghur representatives in exile beforehand, and listen to the voices of those who have experienced extreme suffering as a result of China’s policies.”
WUC and other rights groups have expressed concern that the Chinese government will restrict access to places or otherwise set an itinerary designed to hide evidence of human rights abuses.
Rights groups have said that Bachelet must have unfettered access to locations she wants to visit for her trip to be seen as credible. That includes China’s vast network of internment camps where millions of mostly Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities have been arbitrarily detained and allegedly subject to torture, rape and other abuses.
About 200 organizations, including WUC, called on Bachelet in March to release the report and brief members and observers of the U.N. Human Rights Council on its contents as a matter of urgency.
On April 19, nearly 60 rights groups issued a set of preconditions that had to be met in order for Bachelet’s visit to be seen as credible and independent.
WUC's statement came a day after four Uyghur internment camp survivors began a weeklong protest outside U.N. offices in Geneva. The group is calling on Bachelet to meet them before her visit and to publish her report on the situation.