Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s human rights chief, said she had not been ‘unable to assess the full scale’ of the notorious system of so-called education and training centers in Xinjiang, undermining its landmark investigation into China’s crimes against Uyghur Muslims.
The former Chilean president spent two days in the northwest region of China where 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities were subjected to mass internment, forced labor and re-education camps, as well as to draconian technology-based surveillance and police persecution.
In Ürümqi, the capital, and Kashgar, another major city, Bachelet met with senior Communist Party and security officials and visited a prison and a former “vocational education and training center”, among other facilities. . Beijing has insisted for years that the VETC system is necessary as part of its response to terrorism and poverty in the region.
“The government has assured me that the VETC system has been dismantled,” she told reporters in Guangzhou.
She added: “While I am unable to assess the full scale of the VETC, I have raised with the government the lack of independent judicial oversight of the operation of the scheme. . . allegations of use of force and ill-treatment in institutions, and reports of unduly harsh restrictions on legitimate religious practices.
Bachelet also called on Chinese authorities to provide information to Uyghurs who have lost contact with family members and to review the state’s “counter-terrorism and de-radicalization policies”.
The 70-year-old has long been considered the first woman to head the UN. His trip to China marks the first time a UN human rights commissioner has had access to China since 2005. It comes amid allegations of genocide by the United States, the Kingdom United States, Canada and others, as well as sanctions and boycotts of related companies. to the region.
Experts said Bachelet’s reputation and that of the UN’s abilities to investigate human rights abuses and hold China to account now hinged on his long-delayed report on Xinjiang.
Bachelet is no stranger to prisons. As a young woman in Chile in the 1970s, she was captured by Secret Service agents and held in a clandestine detention center before her exile. Her father was tortured and died behind bars.
Despite his personal experiences of repression and his solid reputation with his UN peers, human rights experts and diplomats are pessimistic that Bachelet will learn anything of value about the security apparatus. Chinese and the fate of the Uyghurs. Nor is she expected to persuade Beijing to change course.
Instead, critics say, his tightly controlled mission has been undermined by relentless Chinese obstruction, denial of wrongdoing and propaganda. The trip also highlighted years of international failures to hold President Xi Jinping’s administration to account over China’s growing influence at the UN.
“All of our like-minded countries have similar views on the visit: it’s a victory for China,” a senior EU diplomat in Beijing said. “The best thing she can do right now is be open about the access she’s had.”
Bachelet also downplayed the nature of his trip, saying it was an opportunity to have “direct talks” with China’s top human rights leaders.
“This visit was not an investigation – official visits by a high commissioner are inherently high-profile and simply not conducive to the detailed, methodical and low-key type of work that is investigative in nature,” she said. declared.
In a series of events orchestrated earlier, Bachelet met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi before speaking with Xi via video link.
Wang, the foreign minister, said Bachelet’s trip would “help clarify misinformation” from “anti-China forces” by presenting her with a copy of Xi’s book: Excerpts from Xi Jinping on the respect and protection of human rights. Photos of the exchange were released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry and state media.
Chinese authorities have controlled access to the region for years, closing it off to journalists, diplomats and non-governmental organizations.
Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group, said China had made the trip a “public relations mess for the UN” and put Bachelet’s chance to improve the lot of the Uyghurs. “maybe at 3%”.
But Gowan said the envoy’s trip should be viewed in the same way as UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin last month.
“If you don’t see the UN leaving, it’s even more damaging to the residual hope that the UN can do valuable work,” he said.
“In a sense, she sacrifices herself because we knew from the start that there would be no real Chinese transparency. It’s a trap. But it’s a trap that Bachelet had to fall into.
Complicating his role is a direction, set by Guterres, to keep China at the UN to fight climate change.
“The real telltale will be the kind of report that emerges,” said Anjali Dayal, a UN expert at Fordham University in New York.
Dayal added that while it was characteristic of UN investigators “not getting the full picture”, Bachelet’s source choices and “efforts to counter” Beijing would reveal the extent of his independence. office, or lack thereof.
“It is inevitable in his role to give the impression that you also take the government seriously, even if you have no intention of buying their story. . . The real measure of success will be whether or not she can release a report that documents things beyond what the government has shown her,” she said.
Additional reporting by Arjun Neil Alim in Beijing