Michelle Bachelet and Xinjiang visit
When UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet ended her six-day official mission to China, made in late May 2022 at the invitation of the Government, she was heavily criticised for failing to condemn crimes against humanity and other grave human rights violations by the Chinese authorities.
Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Agnès Callamard said “Michelle Bachelet’s refusal to call out the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity has betrayed countless victims and survivors…We call on Michelle Bachelet to finish her term by acting with the courage and principles that the office of High Commissioner demands.”
Rushan Abbas, founder and executive director of the Washington-based organization Campaign for Uyghurs is reported to have written in an email to the Voice of America “Bachelet made a mockery of the U.N. Human Rights Office by adopting Beijing’s narrative…Bachelet parrots [Chinese Communist Party] talking points like ‘anti-terrorism’ and ‘deradicalization.’ Co-opting Beijing’s ‘anti-terrorism’ narrative legitimizes China’s genocide.” And in a Twitter post Abbas wrote “We demand the resignation of High Commissioner of Human Rights Michelle Bachelet immediately! She neglects her mandate & the #UN‘s founding principles.”
So how did Ms Bachelet herself see the result of her visit?
In her statement at the end of the visit, Bachelet said “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. The visit was an opportunity 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.
“To those who have sent me appeals, asking me to raise issues or cases with the authorities – I have heard you. 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.
“I welcome China’s stated aim of ensuring quality development, closely linked to strengthening the rule of law and respect for human rights. This is formulated in the Human Rights Action Plan of China and other policy documents. My team had in-depth discussions on how national legislation and practices must reflect international human rights laws and standards, particularly in relation to law enforcement and judicial procedures, and we look forward to continuing to share our expertise with the Government and judiciary.
“The commitment in the Human Rights Action Plan of China to enforce more rigorous procedures for reviewing capital sentences and implement a more stringent mechanism for reporting and reviewing death penalty cases is also welcome. It is important to issue data on the death penalty, and I do hope China will join the growing international momentum towards abolition of the death penalty.
“I share the concerns of a number of UN human rights mechanisms about laws and policies to counter terrorism and radicalism and their application.
“Violent acts of extremism have a terrible, serious impact on the lives of victims, including those tasked to protect the community. But it is critical that counter-terrorism responses do not result in human rights violations. The application of relevant laws and policies, and any mandatory measures imposed on individuals, need to be subject to independent judicial oversight, with greater transparency of judicial proceedings. All victims must be able to seek redress.”
The Guardian reported the US as saying China had “restricted” and “manipulated” Bachelet’s visit, while the UK’s Foreign Office vowed to increase international pressure on China to “immediately cease its appalling human rights violations in Xinjiang, and release those unjustly detained”. Activists and a number of western governments had urged Bachelet, whom the Guardian described as “the former Chilean president and torture survivor” to publish a long-awaited report on China’s treatment of its Uyghur population in Xinjiang.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken expressed concern over China’s “efforts to restrict and manipulate” the visit to the Xinjiang region. “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.”
Responding to the calls, Bachelet said that her office was updating its official assessment of the situation in Xinjiang, and it would be shared with the Chinese government for factual comments before publication. She did not say when the report would be released for the public to scrutinise.
But by 13 June, Bachelet had had enough. She decided she would not remain as the High Commissioner. She Tweeted “I will not be seeking a second term for personal reasons. It is time to go back to Chile & be with family. I urge States to identify common ground to achieve solutions to our shared human rights challenges.”