GENEVA (AN) — The United Nations’ top human rights official acknowledged she could not obtain enough information during a six-day visit in China to completely assess its system of so-called education and training centers where millions of Muslim Uyghurs are forcibly held and put to work in remote Xinjiang Province.
Michelle Bachelet, speaking to a video conference on Saturday from the southern Chinese port city of Guangzhou, said she met with top Chinese officials, including a virtual meeting with President Xi Jinping, and paid visits to a prison and "experimental school," formerly known as a Vocational Education and Training Center, or VETC, in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar.
It was the first trip to China that any head of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, has taken in the past 17 years.
"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," said Bachelet, a former president of Chile and human rights activist. During her visit, she also met virtually with groups working on human rights in Tibet, Hong Kong and other parts of China.
"To those who have sent me appeals, asking me to raise issues or cases with the authorities — I have heard you," she said. "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."
Bachelet said she went "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."
Though she said she "raised questions and concerns" about China's treatment of Uyghurs — in a program the United States officially declared to be a genocide in 2017 — and asked authorities to inform Uyghur families living abroad about their loved ones, she conceded she was constrained by what China allowed her to see.
And in Tibet, where China smothered decades of protest and civil disobedience and ended centuries of self-governance, Bachelet emphasized the importance of Tibetans' "linguistic, religious and cultural identity" and allowing children to learn "their own language and culture" within their own families or communities.
"While I am unable to assess the full scale of the VETCs," she said, "I raised with the government the lack of independent judicial oversight of the operation of the program, the reliance by law enforcement officials on 15 indicators to determine tendencies towards violent extremism, allegations of the use of force and ill treatment in institutions, and reports of unduly severe restrictions on legitimate religious practices."
While Bachelet was in China, the U.S.-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, in cooperation with a consortium of European, Japanese and U.S. media outlets, published a trove of documents, speeches, spreadsheets and images of detainees in Xinjiang dubbed the "Xinjiang Police Files," which was hacked from police computer servers in the region.
The leaked information from inside China's mass “reeducation” internment centers — delivered by a whistleblower and authenticated by researcher Adrian Zenz, a scholar at the foundation — includes an official's speech mentioning Xi's detailed knowledge of the operation.
“The Xinjiang Police Files prove that China’s so-called vocational training centers are really prisons,” said Andrew Bremberg, the foundation's president and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva during the Trump administration.
“These documents conclusively demonstrate that Beijing has been lying about its gross human rights violations in Xinjiang. The international community must take immediate and concrete action to hold China accountable for these atrocities.”
'Political victory' for China
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised concerns that Beijing's efforts to "restrict and manipulate" Bachelet's visit prevented her from speaking directly with residents of Xinjiang, where more than 1 million people have been detained, and or with families of Uyghurs subjected to "cruel treatment that shocks the conscience" including torture, forced sterilization, state-sponsored forced labor, sexual violence, and forced separation of children from their parents.
"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," Blinken said.
"We are further troubled," he said, "by reports that residents of Xinjiang were warned not to complain or speak openly about conditions in the region, that no insight was provided into the whereabouts of hundreds of missing Uyghurs and conditions for over a million individuals in detention."
Bachelet has first-hand knowledge of political prisons — and the tactics used by repressive regimes. Her father, an air force general in Chile, opposed U.S.-backed August Pinochet's overthrow of democratically elected President Salvador Allende in 1973, and died after months of torture while in prison.
Bachelet and her mother were detained and tortured for weeks during Pinochet's dictatorship then fled into exile. Bachelet returned to Chile in 1979, becoming a pediatrician and public health advocate before starting a career in politics.
Despite Bachelet's background and credentials, Amnesty International's Secretary General Agnès Callamard, a former U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, expressed disbelief at the outcome of the visit.
Callamard, an experienced investigator who headed the U.N. human rights team that probed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's brazen murder by Saudi officials, said she understood the diplomatic theatrics that can occur on trips like this.
"But on this occasion it left me speechless," she said. "Hard to believe this statement is by the U.N. human rights chief and concerns China's human rights records. The paragraphs on the Uyghurs and Tibet are surreal."
Callamard said it's time for OHCHR "to publicly acknowledge the scale and gravity of human rights violations being committed by the Chinese government," and for Bachelet to release a long-awaited report on Xinjiang and present its findings to the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council in June.
“Failure to release a report that sufficiently addresses crimes against humanity in the region would amount to a betrayal of the victims and their families," Callamard said, adding that Bachelet's photo opps with senior Chinese officials during her tightly controlled visit and Chinese media's mischaracterizations of her statements left an "impression that she has walked straight into a highly predictable propaganda exercise for the Chinese government."
Bachelet praised China for hitting its poverty reduction targets 10 years ahead of schedule, including its introduction of universal health care and "almost universal" unemployment insurance, and for supporting the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. She also welcomed China's legal revisions that she said "should bring about several improvements for protection of women’s rights."
The International Campaign for Tibet, however, said it, too, was disappointed that Bachelet's visit basically "handed the Chinese government a political victory" and that, as she spoke at the virtual press conference, she had "adopted the Chinese Communist Party’s framing of policies, domestically and internationally."
"Bachelet did not visit Tibet and referred only marginally to the situation in the region, which is regularly ranked as one of the least-free in the world," ICT said. "In failing to acknowledge the evidence showing China’s systematic human rights violations aimed at the destruction of the cultural identity and the very lives of Uyghurs and Tibetans, Mongols, and many others, the high commissioner has emboldened China and further disempowered civil society actors."