US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed concern over “China’s efforts to restrict and manipulate” the visit of the top UN human rights official to the Xinjiang region.
“The United States remains concerned about the visit of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and her team to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the PRC’s efforts to restrict and manipulate her visit. “, Blinken said in a statement on Saturday.
“We are concerned that the conditions imposed by Beijing authorities during the visit did not allow for a full and independent assessment of the human rights environment in the PRC, including in Xinjiang, where genocide and crimes against humanity continue.”
Earlier, Bachelet said she urged the Chinese government to review its counter-terrorism policy in Xinjiang and requested information on missing Uyghurs at the end of a six-day visit to China.
She made the claim while speaking to more than 120 reporters at the Zoom conference in Guangzhou, but has been criticized by rights groups for giving few details or condemning China while easily making lengthy statements. unrelated to American issues.
Hours after the press conference, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu told state media that Bachelet’s visit had “provided an opportunity to observe and experience the real Xinjiang first-hand.”
Xinjiang is the site of a years-long crackdown by Chinese authorities against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, with sweeping policies of religious, cultural, linguistic and physical oppression.
Rights organizations and several governments have called the campaign genocide or a crime against humanity. Beijing denies all allegations of mistreatment and says its policy is to fight terrorism and religious extremism.
Bachelet had been seeking access to the region for several years, with negotiations stalled over Covid restrictions and demands from the office for unfettered access, and Beijing that it be friendly and not an investigation. The tour faced widespread fear that it was being co-opted by the authorities for propaganda purposes.
She began her remarks on Saturday by emphasizing that her visit was not an investigation.
“By their nature, official visits by a high commissioner are highly publicized and not conducive to… work of an investigative nature,” she said.
Regarding Xinjiang, Bachelet said she recognized the damage caused by “violent extremism”, but said it was essential that counter-terrorism responses “not themselves be human rights violations”. .
“I have raised questions and concerns regarding the application of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures, and their broad application, in particular their impact on the rights of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities,” he said. she declared.
“While I am unable to assess the full scale of vocational education and training centres, I have raised with the government the lack of independent judicial oversight of the operation of the scheme,” he said. she said, using the Chinese term for network of detention centers. through which about 1 million Uyghurs have passed.
She said the government assured her that the VETC system had been dismantled and that she encouraged them to undertake a review of its policies to ensure that they fully complied with human rights standards.
In 2019, China announced that all ‘trainees’ had ‘graduated’ from the centers, but rights groups said many had been transferred to factories under alleged forced labor programs or to prisons. .
Bachelet said during the “closed-loop” tour that she was able to meet with senior officials, law enforcement, civil society and government figures, including the foreign minister and President Xi Jinping. .
She hailed China’s achievements, including eradicating poverty 10 years ahead of her goal, universal health care, job protection and new laws to better protect women’s rights and interests. and children.
Bachelet raised concerns about the criminalization of lawyers and human rights defenders, the “arbitrary detention” of the residential surveillance program and the “deeply disturbing” crackdown in Hong Kong. She insisted that religious and cultural freedoms in Tibet be protected.
The press conference lasted 45 minutes and Bachelet answered less than 10 questions. At least four were from Chinese state media, to which Bachelet gave detailed responses on human rights issues in the United States, while appearing vague on many Xinjiang-related issues.
Asked about the freedom of Uyghurs to speak to her freely in one of the most surveilled regions in the world, Bachelet pointed out that she and her team had met with many individuals and civil society groups before the trip to China.
“Of course be part of a bubble [on the China trip] … we could meet some people and not everyone, but the people we could talk to were unsupervised,” she said.
Bachelet said a visit to a men’s prison in Kashgar was ‘quite open and transparent’, but she seemed unclear as to why the men were being held, saying they were being held ‘not necessarily related to terrorism … but to other types of crimes”.
Asked about allegations that some Uyghur families were locked in their homes during her visit to prevent them from speaking to her, Bachelet said she and her team are closely monitoring any cases of bullying and that she has raised with the individual case authorities – including missing family. members – but could not divulge details.
Bachelet’s press conference was criticized by some rights groups and activists.
Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur activist and international human rights lawyer whose brother is imprisoned in Xinjiang, said: “It was time for her to really speak truth to power and I felt she was so short”.
“It was a moment that we believed would be life-changing for Uyghurs. The historical significance of this trip, that the UN could be the facilitator to engage with China, change its behavior and alleviate the suffering human rights. So I am very disappointed to hear his statement. It was too little condemnation and too many broad and conciliatory remarks about China’s human rights record,” she said. .
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said the tour and press conference were “precisely what the Chinese government would have wanted”.
“He did not meaningfully challenge them on any fact, he did not engage in an investigation for what we consider to be crimes against humanity. He included a ridiculous appeal to the government’s sense of ‘multilateralism’ Chinese…and last but not least, he gave no information to victims or survivors,” Richardson added.
Bachelet’s visit coincided with reports of a major leak within Xinjiang’s enforcement regime. The treasure included photos of thousands of people held by authorities, databases of arrests for offenses such as studying the scriptures and visiting foreign countries, and internal documents detailing shoot-to-kill policies. escape attempts and other enforcement actions.
The office had also come under pressure from human rights groups over a long-awaited UN report on abuses in Xinjiang, which was due to be completed around the new year. In February, it was reported that China had asked the OHCHR not to release it before the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“My visit was not a survey of human rights policies and practices in China, so in that sense it’s not related to the report,” Bachelet told a reporter.
Richardson asked Bachelet to publish the report.
“I look forward to reading this report tomorrow. If she is committed to ending impunity, if she is committed to helping governments achieve the highest human rights standards, she must release it now.