On June 13, the United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, announced she would not be seeking a second term when her current one ends on August 31. She cited personal reasons, though a highly controversial trip to China last month looms large.
Rights groups and Western governments criticized Bachelet for, as France 24 put it, “falling under the wheels of China’s propaganda machine.”
Li Jingjing, a reporter for China's state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN), turned the backlash against Bachelet into yet another propaganda exercise.
Li said Bachelet had been given the choice between lying for Western governments or “being canceled.”
“The U.N. [High] Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, finally visited Xinjiang after being demanded repeatedly by several Western governments,” Li said on her personal YouTube channel. “You would think that [these] Western governments would finally be happy that this third party, independent trip would finally clear the air. Of course not. They got furious. They want her fired. But why? Because after visiting Xinjiang and the rest of China, she didn’t find any evidence of genocide.”
That is false.
Bachelet’s highly-controlled visit to China, particularly the northwestern Xinjiang region, where Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities face persecution, was never intended to be an investigation.
Beijing has framed it as such in an attempt to exonerate the Chinese Communist Party of genocide allegations. That, and other concerns, have spurred criticism of Bachelet’s trip.
Bachelet embarked on a six-day official mission to China last month. That visit had been four years in the making.
On May 28, Bachelet explicitly stated what her “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,” she said. “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.”
So contrary to Li’s claim, Bachelet was not there to find evidence of genocide.
Still, the trip generated a great deal of criticism on multiple fronts.
Approximately 230 human rights advocacy groups called on Bachelet to resign, alleging she had “whitewashed the Chinese government’s human rights atrocities during her recent visit to China.”
The European Parliament likewise expressed concern over Bachelet’s visit and its outcomes, denouncing “the absence of unfettered access and the tight state control to internment facilities” and “the biased perception and picture of the human rights situation in China and in the Xinjiang” it created.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also voiced concerns about Beijing’s “efforts to restrict and manipulate her visit.”
Blinken said the conditions imposed on the visit did not provide for “a complete and independent assessment of the human rights environment in the PRC [People’s Republic of China], including in Xinjiang, where genocide and crimes against humanity are ongoing.”
“The High Commissioner should have been allowed confidential meetings with family members of Uyghur and other ethnic minority diaspora communities in Xinjiang who are not in detention facilities but are forbidden from traveling out of the region,” Blinken said.
At a June 15 U.N. Human Rights Council meeting, Bachelet said she “was not able to speak to any Uyghurs currently detained or their families during the visit.”
Blinken added that Bachelet had not been given access to people sent from Xinjiang to other parts of China as a part of labor transfer programs, which one study found occurred “within an environment of unprecedented coercion.”
On May 24, one day after Bachelet’s trip to China commenced, a new cache of documents implicating Beijing in rights abuses, called the Xinjiang Police Files, came to light.
As Polygraph.info and others have reported, those hacked files include thousands of photographs of people incarcerated in internment camps, classified government documents proving the evidence of a shoot-to-kill policy for detainees who attempt to escape, and transcripts from senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials “tying central government officials” to atrocities in Xinjiang.
Bachelet did not address the Xinjiang Police Files revelations during her trip.
Bachelet also was highly criticized for seemingly adopting the CCP’s language in describing its policies, which allegedly have included mass internment, torture, religious repression, forced labor, and state-backed sterilization, which some critics say meets the United Nations definition of genocide.
In her May 28 statement, Bachelet said she had “raised questions and concerns about the application of counterterrorism and de-radicalization measures and their broad application.” She further repeated Beijing’s claim that it’s so-called Vocational Education and Training Center system “has been dismantled.”
Uyghur rights groups said the terms “deradicalization,” “anti-terrorism” and “vocational education and training centers” mimicked Beijing’s rhetoric about its actions in Xinjiang, Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister organization of Voice of America, reported.
“The high commissioner has disgraced herself and her office by refusing to investigate China’s genocide and adopting, repeating the Chinese regime’s narrative, further cementing their propaganda in the U.N.,” Rushan Abbas, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Uyghurs, told RFA.
On June 3, 39 scholars of the Uyghur region, its peoples, and related issues in China studies published an open letter to Bachelet regarding her China visit.
The scholars said they “were deeply disturbed by her official statement of May 28, which ignored and even contradicted the academic findings that our colleagues, including two signatories to this letter, provided.”
They also criticized Bachelet for mirroring Beijing’s language and talking points.
“In her statement, High Commissioner Bachelet not only failed to condemn these policies, but she declined to mention any of them beyond the mass internment program, which she referred to using Beijing’s latest euphemism, ‘vocational training education centers.’ Instead, Bachelet asked Beijing to ‘undertake a review of all counter terrorism and de-radicalization policies to ensure they fully comply with international human rights standards’,” the open letter stated.
“High Commissioner Bachelet’s words echo the Chinese state’s claim that their atrocities in Xinjiang are all are part of a ‘counterterrorism’ effort, a claim that our research and the Chinese state’s own documents show to be false. Beijing’s state media has, predictably, presented her comments as vindication.”
The scholars added that the wealth of evidence regarding the “atrocities in Xinjiang” had led them to an “extraordinary consensus” rarely seen in the academic field. They said Beijing’s actions “can be credibly called a genocidal program.”
Benedict Rogers, co-founder and CEO of the Britain-based Hong Kong Watch, and co-founder and deputy chair of the U.K. Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, concurred.
“She parroted Beijing’s language about ‘counterterrorism’ and ‘de-radicalization,’ praised China’s role in ‘multilateralism,’ and trumpeted the CCP’s achievements in eradicating poverty. She has turned into a classic useful idiot, played skillfully by Chinese President Xi Jinping,” Rogers wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.
Rogers called other aspects of Bachelet’s press statement “Orwellian.” He noted that she had “commended China for promoting gender equality but said nothing of well-documented and systematic sexual violence, forced sterilization, forced abortions, human trafficking, torture, crimes against humanity, and genocide.”
Amnesty International also criticized Bachelet in a strongly worded statement, saying she “now has just two-and-a-half months to address her failures on China.
“Her refusal to call out the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, and their dismal human rights record throughout the country, has betrayed countless victims and survivors. Without immediate action, Michelle Bachelet’s failure to stand up to political pressure from China will be a major part of her legacy,” said Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard.
Meanwhile, rights groups, academics and government bodies are pressuring Bachelet to release her office’s long-delayed report concerning allegations of "serious human rights violations" in Xinjiang. Bachelet had said the report was being finalized in September and then December 2021.
After announcing she would be stepping down, Bachelet said she was working on an updated version of that Xinjiang report, which would be released after first being shared with authorities in Beijing for “factual comment.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said news of the revised report “should have prompted cheers,” but instead it “has been received with skepticism and weariness.”
HRW said “Bachelet’s credibility took a serious hit after her recent disastrous trip to China,” adding that “[h]er legacy as high commissioner will be measured by her willingness to hold a powerful state like China to account.”
“She needs to release a report that sets out a strategy to achieve that outcome, and to make up for lost time by listening to, rather than avoiding, the people living the nightmare of Chinese government oppression,” HRW said.