Human rights groups urge UN rights chief to issue report on atrocities in Xinjiang

The call comes a day after Michelle Bachelet announced a trip to China planned for May.
By Nuriman Abdurashid and Alim Seytoff
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Sept. 13, 2021.

UPDATED at 11:20 A.M. ET on 2022-03-10

The U.N. human rights chief must issue an overdue report on serious rights violations by Chinese authorities targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic communities in Xinjiang, some 200 human rights groups said in an appeal on Wednesday, a day after she announced that she would visit China and the turbulent region in May.

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR), committed in 2021 to issuing a report on rights violations in China’s far-western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities have been held in a vast network of internment camps operated by the Chinese government under the guise of preventing religious extremism and terrorism among the mostly Muslim groups.

Various Western legislative bodies have accused China of committing a genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Among the rights organizations that signed the open letter to Bachelet were Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, World Uyghur Congress (WUC), Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), and Campaign for Uyghurs (CFU) — groups that have repeatedly raised alarm to Bachelet’s office about extreme measures taken by Chinese authorities since 2017 to eradicate the religion, culture and languages of Xinjiang’s ethnic groups.

“The release of the report without further delay is essential — to send a message to victims and perpetrators alike that no state, no matter how powerful, is above international law or the robust independent scrutiny of your Office,” said their open letter to Bachelet.

The NGOs, some of which have published reports about the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and the commission of crimes of humanity against them and other Muslims, went on to say that they have been concerned by “the relative silence of [Bachelet’s] Office in the face of these grave violations.”

They noted that Bachelet still had not issued the report, despite saying in September 2021 that her office was finalizing an assessment of available information on allegations of serious human rights violations in Xinjiang “with a view to making it public,” and despite that her spokesman said in December that the report would be issued in the coming weeks.

“We urge you to fulfill your mandate, release the report without further delay, and brief members and observers of the UN Human Rights Council on its contents as a matter of urgency,” the letter said. “Accountability can wait no longer.”

On Tuesday, Bachelet told the Geneva-based Human Rights Council by videoconference that she had reached an agreement with the Chinese government for a visit “foreseen to take place in May.”

“The Government has also accepted the visit of an advanced OHCHR team to prepare my stay in China, including onsite visits to Xinjiang and other places,” she said.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press conference on Wednesday that the Chinese government and the OHCHR are holding consultations on the specific arrangements for Bachelet’s visit.

“China’s position on [the] relevant visit is consistent and clear,” he said. “The purpose of such visit is to promote bilateral exchanges and cooperation. We always oppose certain countries’ political manipulation of this matter.”

‘She really is at risk’

Bachelet, a former president of Chile who took office in September 2018, has been working with China to arrange a trip with mutually agreeable parameters for more than three years.

At the beginning of March, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres repeated a call for China to allow outside officials to visit Xinjiang to observe how the government is treating Uyghur Muslims there.

Sophie Richardson, HRW’s China director, said that if Bachelet wants her May visit to be credible and transformative from a human rights perspective, especially for Uyghurs and in response to crimes against humanity, she first must release her report.

“She has to show that she is serious and aware of and educated about and driven by a motivation to investigate and find redress and accountability, not just show up uninformed and without having made very strong interventions on behalf of victims and survivors,” Richardson told RFA. “And then she really is at risk, not just jeopardizing her own credibility and legitimacy, but the credibility and the legitimacy of the U.N. human rights system.”

The U.S.'s top diplomat to the U.N. and rights groups said China must give Bachelet unfettered access to Xinjiang so she can gather evidence of what’s taking place there and cautioned about Chinese moves to cover up crimes that have occurred there.

“We call upon the People's Republic of China to ensure that her visit is accorded unhindered and unsupervised access to all areas of Xinjiang and to private meetings with a diverse range of Uighur individuals and civil society groups,” said Sheba Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to the permanent mission to the U.N., in a statement on Wednesday.

A credible visit should include access to the locations where atrocities, human rights violations, and abuses such as forced labor, have been reported, and should be followed by a timely, report on the visit’s findings, she said.

“Access to Xinjiang for human rights monitors is an absolutely vital step towards accountability for human rights violations committed by the Chinese government against Uyghurs and other Muslims living in the region,” Joanne Mariner, Amnesty’s crisis response director, said in a statement. “However, it is equally vital that any visit by High Commissioner Bachelet be independent and unhindered.”

WUC president Dolkun Isa pointed out that Bachelet didn’t mention the terms of her agreement with the Chinese government for visiting Xinjiang, where previous visits by journalists and others have been stage-managed by Chinese authorities who have made concerted efforts to disseminate misleading information about the human rights situation there.

“If High Commissioner Bachelet’s visit to East Turkestan is not independent and unconditional with unfettered access, but rather follows China’s agenda with limited access, then her visit will be seen as the U.N. essentially colluding with China to cover up the ongoing Uyghur genocide,” he told RFA. “The international community will not accept the results of such a visit.”

Rushan Abbas, executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs, said Bachelet must be able to interview whomever she wants while in Xinjiang.

“This visit must be in a pure form situation free from government intrusion,” she said in a statement. “It must be a space where individuals may speak freely without repercussions or ramifications for any testimony given.”

“It must be ensured that Bachelet is able to visit the confirmed locations of the geo-located concentration camps confirmed by researchers and satellite experts in order to draw independent conclusions on the truth,” said Abbas.

China will ‘exploit the visit’

German researcher Adrian Zenz, who has documented China’s abuses of the Uyghurs, said that the Chinese government will put up a façade in Xinjiang during the visit, ensuring that no one in the region says anything wrong.

“The problem is her visit is probably not going to be genuine field work, and so the Chinese will use it to whitewash,” he told RFA. “I think it does a great danger that the Chinese propaganda will exploit the visit to show that actually everything is fine in the region.”

“She should not go because she’s a high-profile person,” said Zenz. “The Chinese will just exploit that. Instead, she should send a team of researchers to spend half a year in the region and to find out all kinds of things, with no restriction.”

Bachelet must not allow her visit to become a public relations victory for the Chinese government, said UHRP executive director Omer Kanat in a statement.

“While a visit may help U.N. investigators further assess the situation on the ground, they must remember that the Chinese government has done everything in its power to promote a story about their treatment of Uyghurs that does not align with basic facts,” he said.

UHRP board chairman Nury Turkel, who is also vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, called the announcement of the visit a positive development but warned that China would have plenty of time to conceal evidence of genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

“Why does China agree in March to have the U.N. be granted access for a visit in May?,” he asked. “That obviously likely means that China is preparing perfect Potemkin villages for the next two months to hide and whitewash industrial-scale concentration camps and forced labor facilities.”

Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

Clarification: The updated version of the article includes comments by Zhao Lijian and Sheba Crocker.


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