GENEVA (AN) — The United Nations’ top human rights official acknowledged she could not obtain enough information during her six-day visit in China to completely assess its system of so-called education and training centers where millions of Muslim Uyghurs are forcibly held and put to work in remote Xinjiang Province.
Michelle Bachelet, speaking to a video conference on Saturday from the southern Chinese port city of Guangzhou, said she met with top Chinese officials, including a virtual meeting with President Xi Jinping, and paid visits to a prison and “experimental school,” formerly known as a Vocational Education and Training Center, or VETC, in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar.
It was the first trip to China that any head of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, has taken in the past 17 years.
“I should state from the outset what this visit was and what it wasn’t. This visit was not an investigation. Official visits by a high commissioner are by their nature high profile and simply not conducive to the kind of detailed, methodical, discreet work of an investigative nature,” said Bachelet, a former president of Chile and human rights activist. During her visit, she also met virtually with groups working on human rights in Tibet, Hong Kong and other parts of China.
“To those who have sent me appeals, asking me to raise issues or cases with the authorities — I have heard you,” she said. “Your advocacy matters and my visit was an opportunity to raise a number of specific situations and issues of concern with the government. I will continue to follow up on such issues and instances of concern on a sustained basis.”
Bachelet said she was there “to hold direct discussions with China’s most senior leaders on human rights, to listen to each other, raise concerns, explore and pave the way for more regular, meaningful interactions in the future, with a view to supporting China in fulfilling its obligations under international human rights law.”
Though she said she “raised questions and concerns” about China’s treatment of Uyghurs — in a program the United States officially declared to be a genocide in 2017 — and asked authorities to inform Uyghur families living abroad about their loved ones, she conceded she was constrained by what China allowed her to see.
And in Tibet, where China smothered decades of protest and civil disobedience and ended centuries of self-governance, Bachelet emphasized the importance of Tibetans’ “linguistic, religious and cultural identity” and allowing children to learn “their own language and culture” within their own families or communities.
“While I am unable to assess the full scale of the VETCs,” she said, “I raised with the government the lack of independent judicial oversight of the operation of the program, the reliance by law enforcement officials on 15 indicators to determine tendencies towards violent extremism, allegations of the use of force and ill treatment in institutions, and reports of unduly severe restrictions on legitimate religious practices.”
While Bachelet was in China, the U.S.-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, in cooperation with a consortium of European, Japanese and U.S. media outlets, published a trove of documents, speeches, spreadsheets and images of detainees in Xinjiang dubbed the “Xinjiang Police Files,” which was hacked from police computer servers in the region. The leaked information from inside China’s mass “reeducation” internment centers — delivered by a whistleblower and authenticated by researcher Adrian Zenz, a scholar at the foundation — includes an official’s speech mentioning Xi’s detailed knowledge of the operation.
“The Xinjiang Police Files prove that China’s so-called vocational training centers are really prisons,” said Andrew Bremberg, the foundation’s president and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva during the Trump administration. “These documents conclusively demonstrate that Beijing has been lying about its gross human rights violations in Xinjiang. The international community must take immediate and concrete action to hold China accountable for these atrocities.”
BREAKING: huge trove of files obtained by hacking into Xinjiang police / re-education camp computers contain first-ever image material from inside camps, reveal Chen Quanguo issuing shoot-to-kill orders, Xi Jinping demanding new camps because existing ones are overcrowded. 🧵 pic.twitter.com/6K19Wxf0Lx
— Adrian Zenz (@adrianzenz) May 24, 2022
"My visit was an opportunity to raise specific situations & issues of concern with the Gov. I will continue to follow up”
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) May 28, 2022
‘Political victory’ for China
Bachelet has first-hand knowledge of political prisons — and the tactics used by repressive regimes.
Her father, an air force general in Chile, opposed U.S.-backed August Pinochet’s overthrow of democratically elected President Salvador Allende in 1973, and died after months of torture while in prison. Bachelet and her mother also were detained and tortured for weeks during Pinochet’s dictatorship then fled into exile. Bachelet returned to Chile in 1979, becoming a pediatrician and public health advocate before starting a career in politics.
However, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised concerns that Beijing’s efforts to “restrict and manipulate” Bachelet’s visit prevented her from speaking directly with residents of Xinjiang, where more than 1 million people have been detained, and or with families of Uyghurs subjected to “cruel treatment that shocks the conscience” including torture, forced sterilization, state-sponsored forced labor, sexual violence, and forced separation of children from their parents.
“While we continue to raise our concerns about China’s human rights abuses directly with Beijing and support others who do so, we are concerned the conditions Beijing authorities imposed on the visit did not enable a complete and independent assessment of the human rights environment in the PRC, including in Xinjiang, where genocide and crimes against humanity are ongoing,” Blinken said.
“We are further troubled by reports that residents of Xinjiang were warned not to complain or speak openly about conditions in the region, that no insight was provided into the whereabouts of hundreds of missing Uyghurs and conditions for over a million individuals in detention,” he said. “The high commissioner should have been allowed confidential meetings with family members of Uyghur and other ethnic minority diaspora communities in Xinjiang who are not in detention facilities but are forbidden from traveling out of the region. We also note that the high commissioner was not allowed access to individuals who were part of the Xinjiang labor transfer program and have been sent to other provinces across China.”
And despite Bachelet’s background and credentials, Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard, who previously worked as a U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, expressed disbelief at the outcome of the Chinese visit.
Callamard, an experienced investigator who recently headed the U.N. human rights team that probed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the hands of Saudi officials, said she understands all too well the sort of diplomatic theatrics that can occur on trips like this. “But on this occasion it left me speechless,” she said. “Hard to believe this statement is by the U.N. human rights chief and concerns China’s human rights records. The paragraphs on the Uyghurs and Tibet are surreal.”
“It is time for OHCHR “to publicly acknowledge the scale and gravity of human rights violations being committed by the Chinese government,” said Callamard, and Bachelet should release a “long-awaited” report on Xinjiang and present its findings to the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council in June.
“Failure to release a report that sufficiently addresses crimes against humanity in the region would amount to a betrayal of the victims and their families. This continued lack of urgency puts the credibility of the high commissioner’s office at stake,” Callamard said, adding that Bachelet’s photo opps with senior Chinese officials during her tightly controlled visit and the mischaracterizations of her statements by Chinese state media left an “impression that she has walked straight into a highly predictable propaganda exercise for the Chinese government.”
Bachelet praised China for hitting its poverty reduction targets 10 years ahead of schedule, introducing universal health care and “almost universal” unemployment insurance, and for supporting the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. She also welcomed China’s legal revisions that she said “should bring about several improvements for protection of women’s rights.”
The International Campaign for Tibet, however, said it also was deeply disappointed that Bachelet’s visit basically “handed the Chinese government a political victory” and as she spoke at the virtual press conference she “adopted the Chinese Communist Party’s framing of policies, domestically and internationally.”
“Bachelet did not visit Tibet and referred only marginally to the situation in the region, which is regularly ranked as one of the least-free in the world,” ICT said. “In failing to acknowledge the evidence showing China’s systematic human rights violations aimed at the destruction of the cultural identity and the very lives of Uyghurs and Tibetans, Mongols, and many others, the high commissioner has emboldened China and further disempowered civil society actors.”