The UN’s top human rights official says she has urged the Chinese government to review its counter-terrorism policies in Xinjiang and appealed for information about missing Uyghurs at the end of a six-day visit to China.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, addressed more than 120 reporters on Zoom from Guangzhou, but was criticised by rights groups for giving few details or condemnation of China while readily giving long unrelated statements about US issues.
Within hours of the press conference, China’s vice foreign minister, Ma Zhaoxu, told state media that Bachelet’s visit had “provided an opportunity to observe and experience first-hand the real Xinjiang”.
Xinjiang is the site of a years-long crackdown by Chinese authorities on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, with sweeping policies of religious, cultural, linguistic and physical oppression.
Rights organisations and several governments have labelled the campaign a genocide or crime against humanity. Beijing denies all allegations of mistreatment and says its policies are to counter-terrorism and religious extremism.
Bachelet had been seeking access to the region for several years, with negotiations stalling over Covid restrictions and the office’s demands for unfettered access, and Beijing’s that it be friendly and not an investigation. The tour has faced widespread concern that it would be co-opted by authorities as propaganda.
She began her remarks on Saturday by stressing that her visit was not an investigation.
“Official visits by a high commissioner by their nature are high profile and not conducive to the … work of an investigative nature,” she said.
Regarding Xinjiang, Bachelet said she recognised the damage caused by “violent extremism” but said it was critical that counter-terrorism responses “are not themselves human rights violations”.
“I have raised questions and concerns about the application of counter-terrorism and deradicalisation measures, and their broad application, particularly their impact on the rights of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities,” she said.
“While I’m unable to assess the full scale of the vocational education and training centres, I raised with the government the lack of independent judicial oversight of the operation of the programme,” she said, using China’s term for the network of detention facilities through which an estimated 1 million Uyghurs have gone through.
She said the government had assured her the VETC system had been dismantled, and she had encouraged them to undertake a review of its policies to ensure they fully comply with human rights standards.
In 2019 China announced all “trainees” had “graduated” from the centres, but rights groups have said many were transferred to factories under alleged forced labour programmes, or to prisons.
Bachelet said during the “closed loop” tour that she was able to meet senior officials, members of law enforcement, civil society, and senior government figures including the foreign minister and the president, Xi Jinping.
She praised China’s achievements, including the eradication of poverty 10 years ahead of its target, universal healthcare, employment protection and new laws intended to improve protections of the rights and interests of women and children.
Bachelet did voice concerns over the penalising of human rights lawyers and defenders, the “arbitrary detention” of the residential surveillance programme, and the “deeply worrying” crackdown in Hong Kong. She urged that religious and cultural freedoms in Tibet be protected.
The press conference went on for 45 minutes and Bachelet took fewer than 10 questions. At least four were from Chinese state media, to whom Bachelet gave detailed answers on human rights issues in the US, while appearing vague on many questions related to Xinjiang.
When asked about the freedom of Uyghurs to speak to her freely in one of the most heavily surveilled regions in the world, Bachelet stressed that she and her team had met many individuals and civil society groups before the China trip.
“Of course being part of a bubble [on the China trip] … we could meet some people and not everyone, but the people we could speak to were in an unsupervised manner,” she said.
Bachelet said a visit to a men’s prison in Kashgar was “pretty open and transparent”, but she appeared unclear on the reason the men were detained, saying they were held “not necessarily linked to terrorism … but other kinds of crimes”.
Asked about allegations that some Uyghur families were locked in their homes during her visit to prevent them speaking to her, Bachelet said she and her team kept close watch on any instances of intimidation, and she had raised with authorities individual cases – including of missing family members – but could not release details.
Bachelet’s press conference was criticised by some rights groups and activists.
Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur activist and international human rights lawyer whose brother is jailed in Xinjiang, said: “This was her moment to really speak truth to power and I felt she fell so short.”
“It was a moment that we thought was going to change Uyghurs’ lives. The historical significance of this trip, that the UN could be the facilitator to engage with China, to modify its behaviour and mitigate human suffering. So I’m very disappointed in hearing her statement. It was too little condemnation and too many broad conciliatory remarks in relation to China’s human rights record,” she said.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said the tour and press conference was “precisely what the Chinese government would have wanted”.
“It didn’t challenge them significantly on any facts, it did not commit to an investigation for what we consider crimes against humanity. It included a ludicrous appeal to the Chinese government’s sense of ‘multilateralism’ … and last but not least it gave no information to victims or survivors,” Richardson added.
Bachelet’s visit coincided with the reporting of a significant leak within the Xinjiang enforcement regime. The trove included mugshots of thousands of people detained by authorities, databases of arrests for offences including studying scripture and visiting overseas countries, and internal documents detailing shoot-to-kill policies for attempted escapes and other measures of enforcement.
The office had also faced pressure from human rights groups over a long-awaited UN report into the Xinjiang abuses, which was expected to be finished around the new year. In February, it was reported China had requested the OHCHR not release it before the Beijing Winter Olympics.
“My visit was not an investigation into China’s human rights policies and practises, so in that sense it’s not linked to the report,” Bachelet told one reporter.
Richardson called on Bachelet to release the report.
“I look forward to reading that report tomorrow. If she’s committed to ending impunity, if she’s committed to helping governments achieve the highest standards of human rights, she has to release it now.”