US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed concern over China’s “efforts to restrict and manipulate” the visit of a top UN human rights official in the Xinjiang region.
“The United States is aware of the visit of Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and her team to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and PRC efforts to restrict and manipulate their travel,” Blinken said in a statement on Saturday. Worried.”
“We are concerned that the Beijing authorities imposed on the visit did not enable a full and independent assessment of the human rights environment in the PRC, including Xinjiang, where genocide and crimes against humanity are ongoing.”
Earlier, Bachelet said she had urged the Chinese government to review its counter-terrorism policies in Xinjiang and called for information about the missing Uighurs at the end of their six-day visit to China.
She claimed to have addressed more than 120 journalists at the Zoom conference from Guangzhou, but was criticized by rights groups for giving few details or slandering China, while easily making 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 “provided an opportunity to see and experience the real Xinjiang”.
Xinjiang is the site of a year-long crackdown on the Uyghur and other Muslim minorities by Chinese authorities with sweeping policies of religious, cultural, linguistic and physical persecution.
Rights organizations and several governments have called the campaign genocide or a crime against humanity. Beijing denies all allegations of abuse and says its policies are aimed at combating terrorism and religious extremism.
Bachelet had been demanding access to the region for several years, stalling talks on COVID restrictions and demands for unfettered access to the office, and Beijing said it should be friendly and not probed. The visit has faced widespread concern that it will be co-opted as propaganda by the authorities.
He began his remarks on Saturday by stressing that his visit was not an investigation.
“Official visits by a High Commissioner by their nature are high profile 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 important that counter-terrorist responses “are not in themselves a violation of human rights”.
“I have raised questions and concerns about the application of counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation measures and their wider application, particularly their impact on the rights of Uighurs and other Muslim-majority minorities,” he said.
“While I am unable to assess the full scale of the vocational education and training centres, I raised the lack of independent judicial oversight of the program’s operation with the government,” she said, using China’s term for the network of detention facilities. through which an estimated 1 million Uighurs have passed.
She said the government had assured her that the VETC system had been dismantled, and had encouraged them to review their policies to ensure they fully comply with human rights standards.
In 2019 China announced that all “trainees” had “graduated” from the centres, but rights groups have said many had been transferred to factories or to prisons as part of alleged forced labor programmes.
Bachelet said during the “closed loop” tour that she was able to meet senior government figures, including senior officials, members of law enforcement, civil society and foreign ministers, and President Xi Jinping.
He praised China’s achievements, including new laws aimed at eradicating poverty, improving universal health care, job security, and protecting the rights and interests of women and children 10 years ahead of target.
Bachelet called for the punishment of human rights lawyers and defenders, the “arbitrary detention” of the residential surveillance program and the “deeply worrying” actions in Hong Kong. He urged that religious and cultural freedom be protected in Tibet.
The press conference lasted 45 minutes and Bachelet asked less 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.
Asked about the freedom to speak freely with Uighurs in one of the world’s most monitored regions, Bachelet stressed that he and his team had met with a number of individuals and civil society groups prior to their trip to China.
“Being part of a bubble of course” [on the China trip] …we could meet some people and not all, but the people we could talk to were in an uncontrollable way,” she said.
Bachelet said her visit to the men’s prison in Kashgar was “fairly open and transparent”, but she remained vague on the reason for detaining the men, adding that they were “not linked to terrorism … but Other types of offences”.
Asked about allegations that some Uyghur families were locked up in their homes during their visit to prevent them from talking, Bachelet said she and her team would take a strong stand on any bullying. and had taken up personal matters with the authorities—including those of the missing family. Members – but could not release details.
Bachelet’s press conference was criticized by some rights groups and activists.
Uighur activist and international human rights lawyer Rehan Asat, whose brother is in prison in Xinjiang, said: “It was really her moment to speak the truth to power and I thought she had fallen so short.”
“It was a moment we thought was going to change the lives of the Uighurs. The historical significance of this visit, that the UN could be a facilitator to engage with China, modify its behavior and reduce human suffering. That’s why I am very disappointed to hear his statement. It was very little condemnation and very broad conciliatory remarks regarding China’s human rights record,” she said.
Human Rights Watch’s China director Sophie Richardson said the tour and the press conference were “exactly what the Chinese government wanted”.
“It did not challenge them significantly on any facts, it did not commit to an investigation that we consider a crime against humanity. It contained a strange appeal to the Chinese government’s spirit of ‘multilateralism’ … And last but not least it did not provide any information to the victims or the survivors,” Richardson said.
Bachelet’s visit coincided with reporting of a significant leak within the Xinjiang enforcement system. The trove included mugshots of thousands of people detained by the authorities, databases of arrests for crimes including studying scriptures and going abroad, and internal documents showing shoot-to-kill for escape attempts and other measures of enforcement. Provided details of policies.
The office also faced pressure from human rights groups over the long-awaited UN report into Xinjiang abuses, which was expected to end around the new year. In February, it was reported that China had requested the OHCHR not to release it before the Beijing Winter Olympics.
“My visit was not an investigation into China’s human rights policies and practices, so in that sense it is not related to the report,” Bachelet told a reporter.
Richardson called Bachelet to release the report.
“I look forward to reading that report tomorrow. If it is committed to impunity, if it is committed to helping governments achieve the highest standards of human rights, then it must release it now.”