Bachelet’s “Failed” Xinjiang Visit Draws Widespread Condemnation and Calls For Her To Resign

On Saturday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet concluded her highly anticipated visit to Xinjiang. It had been hoped that Bachelet’s visit might provide some form of accountability for the millions of Uyghurs subject to Beijing’s campaign of repression, even in spite of the constraints imposed by the Chinese government. What began in controversy—with framing of her visit as an opportunity for dialogue rather than an investigation into human rights abuses—ultimately ended in widespread criticism from governments and activists alike, who viewed her performance as little more than fodder for state propaganda. Many Uyghur groups called for Bachelet’s resignation and questioned whether the UN remains a capable vehicle for achieving justice for crimes against their humanity

At the end of her visit, Bachelet hosted a 45-minute online press conference, during which she gave a prepared statement and fielded several questions from Chinese and international media outlets. She adopted Beijing’s framing of the human rights issues in Xinjiang as counterrorism measures, and described the mass-internment camps using the CCP’s misleading term of “vocational education and training centers” (VETCs). Bachelet declared that “The government assured me that the VETC system has been dismantled,” but admitted that she was “unable to assess the full scale of the VETCs.” She also did not discuss any of the revelations in the Xinjiang Police Files that were released during her visit. Stuart Lau from Politico reported on other significant shortcomings of Bachelet’s visit:

Bachelet admitted that the only prison she visited in Xinjiang was not one in which Uyghurs convicted of terrorism or political crimes are held. Those are the charges most commonly meted out by the Chinese authorities to anyone in the region who spoke up against the country’s high-handed approach to their communities.

She also didn’t see any operating internment camp — as Chinese officials told her all the so-called “vocational training centers” have closed down.

[…] While Bachelet said she asked Beijing officials to “rethink” certain policies, she was also complacent about what she said she managed to achieve during the trip.

“Of course, being part of a bubble because of the COVID-19 restrictions, we could meet some people and not everyone,” Bachelet said. “But with the people we were able to speak to, it was in an unsupervised manner.” She made no mention of what human rights groups say is a pervasive use of surveillance technologies by the Xinjiang government. [Source]

Many observers lambasted Bachelet for appearing to read prepared remarks when answering a question from Chinese state media, and for spending more time answering their questions about human rights abuses in the U.S. than those in China: 

The goal of Bachelet’s muted approach may have been to save sharper critiques for conversations behind closed doors and to “pave the way for more regular, meaningful interactions in the future.” But as Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth stated, “Such quiet backroom conversation is just what Beijing wants—no public reporting, no pressure to end its intense repression of Uyghurs and others.” Raphael Viana David, Acting Asia Programme Manager for the International Service for Human Rights, argued that Bachelet’s silence only emboldens Beijing, tarnishes the UN’s credibility, and fails to improve the human rights situation in China:

Bachelet fell short even of the work done by the UN’s very own independent experts and committees in documenting both the scope and the gravity of rights violations across the country.

[…] Unlike the 2000s, Xi Jinping’s China is not one where limited space exists for dialogue on human rights. As NGOs, our experience working on China tells us that closed-door dialogue does not work: speaking out is not a matter only of principle, it is the only leverage for human rights change in China we have. Regrettably, the High Commissioner does not appear to be interested.

[…] This was not only a test for her, but for the credibility of the UN’s human rights office, and she failed. Her visit will have a lasting impact on the prospects for an impartial, multilateral response to China’s human rights crisis. This will only bolster Beijing’s entrenched sense of impunity. [Source]

Indeed, Chinese diplomats and state media jumped on the occasion to instrumentalize Bachelet’s cooperative approach. Zha Liyou, consul general at the Chinese consulate in Kolkata, wrote that Bachelet’s visit “[n]ot only vindicated, but justified” China’s human rights model. As Bloomberg reported, many human rights activists and researchers believed Bachelet’s handling of her visit whitewashed the human rights abuses that she was entrusted to combat

“There are now calls to either abandon the UN Human Rights Commission, or to have her step down immediately,” said the US-based researcher [Adrian Zenz]. “I think the Uyghurs are feeling profoundly betrayed.”

[…] Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told Bloomberg TV on Monday that Bachelet’s trip had “achieved exactly what the Chinese government wanted — a near-total lack of criticism of its human rights record.”

“Perhaps worst of all, the fixes that the high commissioner proposed are precisely the ones that have been tried in the past and failed and effectively enable the Chinese government to commit even worse human rights,” she added.

William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said Bachelet’s remarks were too “weak to match the gravity of the situation.” 

“To a large extent, this is the sort of whitewashing that the human rights community was afraid would happen when the news of her visit was announced,” he wrote in an email to Bloomberg News. [Source]

At Axios, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reported that many activists felt betrayed and called on Bachelet to resign

“If the one institution that was supposed to stand by us ended up aiding the Chinese government’s own narrative, what more could we do to change the victims’ lives?” said Rayhan Asat, a human rights lawyer and Yale law fellow whose brother is detained in Xinjiang, calling this the “ultimate betrayal.”

The institution of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is now “badly compromised,” said Frederick John Packer, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa who served on the drafting committee secretariat at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, where the plan to establish the post of High Commissioner for Human Rights was created. Packer said he was “still in shock” at how the visit had turned out.

“The world cannot afford this,” he said. “She must resign along with those who advised this awful course.”

[…] “Bachelet neglects the duties of her office, her mandate to the world to stand up for human rights, and the UN’s founding principles,” [D.C.-based advocacy group Campaign for Uyghurs] said in a statement. [Source]

Even esteemed Chinese law professor and founder of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute Jerome Cohen, rarely a vocal presence online, tweeted a scathing critique of Bachelet and called on her to resign: 

Some activists wondered whether Bachelet, who was once herself subject to arbitrary detention and torture, might have handled the visit differently in her youth:

Several Western governments shared similarly critical assessments. Putting it bluntly, Germany’s Federal Foreign Office stated that Bachelet’s visit to Xinjiang “failed.” Commenting on the government’s remarks, German newspaper Die Ziet wrote that Bachelet did not do justice to the suffering of the Uyghurs. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern that “the conditions Beijing authorities imposed on the visit did not enable a complete and independent assessment of the human rights environment,” and he was troubled “that no insight was provided into the whereabouts of hundreds of missing Uyghurs and conditions for over a million individuals in detention.” Finbarr Bermingham reported for the South China Morning Post that the EU also expressed “regret” about Bachelet’s visit

“While taking note of the non-investigative nature of the visit, we regret that the high commissioner’s access to independent civil society organisations, human rights defenders and detention centres was limited, and that this did not allow her to assess the full scale of political re-education camps in Xinjiang,” Massrali said.

[…] [After] watching Saturday’s press conference – held virtually due to Covid-19 restrictions – European diplomats remain unconvinced of the wisdom of her visit.

[…] Another [diplomat] pointed out that Bachelet had spoken at length about US gun violence when asked by Chinese state media, while giving only “curt” remarks to international media’s questions about human rights conditions in China.

It was suggested that Bachelet had erred in asking Xinjiang authorities to review their own policies, which was akin to “asking the wolf to take care of the sheep”. [Source]

Bachelet’s failed visit raises questions about the integrity of the UN and its ability to achieve justice for the Uyghurs, considering that the Chinese government appears to have neutered the world’s most authoritative human rights actor during the most high-profile visit to assess the largest mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority since the Holocaust. The wave of widespread criticism over Bachelet’s unusually tame remarks shows that “even the UN cannot convince the world of its impartiality,” as Vincent Ni wrote in The Guardian. (In related blows to the UN’s integrity over the past week, China was elected to the World Health Organization’s Executive Board, and North Korea took over as the chair of the UN Disarmament Forum.) In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Josh Rogin described “How the U.N. became a tool of China’s genocide denial propaganda”:

“Nothing that we’ve seen from the high commissioner’s trip to China dispels our worry that this will be used as a massive propaganda victory for the Chinese government,” [Human Rights Watch U.N. director Louis] Charbonneau told me in an interview. “Bachelet needs to work to put an end to, and not enable, the perception that the U.N. is letting China get away with massive abuses at no cost.”

[…] Bachelet’s trip was not just a missed opportunity to speak truth about China’s atrocities. She has undermined her credibility and the overall credibility of the U.N. system on human rights. Beijing has compromised yet another part of the U.N. system, said Christopher Walker, vice president at the National Endowment for Democracy.

[…] Leaders in Beijing are now surely more confident than ever they can commit mass atrocities without fearing significant costs imposed by the international community. When the history books are written about the world’s failure to stop the Uyghur genocide, Bachelet’s trip will go down as one of many shameful episodes. [Source]


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