At the end of his trip to China, the head of the United Nations’ human rights office tries to calm criticism.
Rights groups and Uyghurs living abroad had asked for China’s policies toward minorities in the country’s far West to be strongly criticized. They were extremely upset.
The top UN human rights official didn’t say much bad about China’s crackdown on mostly Muslim minorities. At the end of her six-day trip to the country, she said on Saturday that she had raised questions about how “counterterrorism and de-radicalization measures” were being used, but that her trip “was not an investigation.”
Michelle Bachelet was the first U.N. high commissioner for human rights to visit China since 2005. Her comments were harshly criticized by Uyghurs living abroad and people who work for human rights, who had asked her to speak out more strongly against China’s policies.
Rayhan Asat, a lawyer whose younger brother is in jail in Xinjiang, said that Ms. Bachelet’s words “show a complete lack of concern for the suffering of the Uyghur people.”
She said, “The crisis has been going on for six years, and it doesn’t need to be looked at any more; it just needs to be condemned.” “We didn’t hear anything like that in what she said.”
During her trip, Ms. Bachelet spoke by video with China’s leader, Xi Jinping. She said that the most important result of the trip was the chance to talk about problems “at the highest level” and find areas “that could be very useful in the future to continue cooperating and working together.”
During her conversation with Mr. Xi, she said that working with China’s government on human rights was a top priority. She also said that China “has a crucial role to play within multilateral institutions” in dealing with threats to peace, climate change, and inequality.
Human rights groups didn’t like how much Ms. Bachelet wanted to talk to the Chinese government. Sophie Richardson, who is in charge of Human Rights Watch’s work in China, said, “This mandate calls for a credible investigation, not just more talk that won’t change anything.”
China’s growing power around the world has led to more influence in the United Nations. Critics say that the lack of pressure on China over its human rights record is just the latest sign of how well it has been able to manipulate international organizations like the World Health Organization, which has agreed with parts of Beijing’s story about how the pandemic started.
Ms. Bachelet praised China’s work to reduce poverty, its support for the U.N.’s goals for sustainable development, and its laws that protect women’s rights.
During her 45-minute news conference, one of the longest answers she gave was to a question from Chinese state television about the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Her critics said that this was a distraction from her job in China.
“Did Texas get more words than Xinjiang?” Ms. Richardson was curious.
Still, some experts said that Ms. Bachelet was smart enough to know that such a trip had its limits and that she did the right thing by focusing on building relationships with the Chinese leadership.
Philip Alston, a former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told an online forum on Friday that the high commissioner must be seen to be working with the Chinese government. “Just the fact that she talked to President Xi Jinping directly is a big deal.”
Ms. Bachelet first suggested going to China in 2018. At the time, rumors were spreading about a “deeply disturbing” campaign of repression against mostly Muslim minorities in the far western Xinjiang region.
Rights groups and academics say that China has held at least one million people in indoctrination camps, often for normal things like traveling to Muslim countries or showing signs of religious devotion. The government has destroyed mosques and shrines, put scholars and intellectuals in jail, and made people work in programs that experts say are the same as forced labor.
First, China said there was no such campaign, and then it said it was a job-training program meant to keep people away from terrorism and religious extremism.
Before Ms. Bachelet’s trip, many Uyghurs living outside of China asked her to visit family members who were in jail or had not been seen or heard from for years. They also asked her to talk to Chinese leaders about their policies in the area, which the US and some other countries have called genocide.
The Chinese government wouldn’t let a trip to investigate, and they did a lot to shape the story around Ms. Bachelet’s visit. State media said that when she talked to Mr. Xi, she praised China for “protecting human rights.” Within hours, Ms. Bachelet’s office sent out a response, pointing out that “her actual opening remarks” didn’t say anything about how much she liked China’s track record on human rights.
During her news conference, Ms. Bachelet called for the protection of Tibetan identity and said it was “deeply worrying” that activists, journalists, and others were being arrested in Hong Kong because of the territory’s National Security Law.
She talked about the crackdown in Xinjiang in the same way that the Chinese government has, saying that the program is a response to terrorist attacks. She said that she had “questions and concerns about the application of counterterrorism and de-radicalization measures and their wide use, especially how they affect the rights of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities.”
She also said that she was worried about the lack of judicial oversight of camps and reports of too many restrictions on religious practices that were legal.
Ms. Bachelet said that during her two days in Xinjiang, she went to a prison and the site of a former indoctrination camp, which the Chinese government calls a V.E.T.C., which stands for vocational education and training center. She said that the government told her that the system “had been taken apart,” but she also said that she couldn’t “evaluate the full scope of the V.E.T.C.s.”
China said that the program would end in 2019, but when reporters from The New York Times went to check, they found evidence that the camps were still running. Satellite images show that China has built more prisons and detention centers in the area. This is because the number of people who have been convicted has gone up sharply.
Some Uyghurs who live outside of China say that family members were threatened and locked up in their homes while Ms. Bachelet was there. Kalbinur Gheni, a Uyghur who lives in Virginia, said that Chinese officials sent her threatening messages after she asked Michelle Bachelet to look into the case of her sister, who is in prison, on Twitter.
Ms. Asat said she found out that her parents in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, were not allowed to leave their home during Ms. Bachelet’s trip, presumably because they might run into her.
Ms. Bachelet said that she heard from people who wanted to know about family members in Xinjiang. She also said that she brought up many of these cases with the authorities, but she wouldn’t say more. She said that her office would ask directly if anyone was being scared.