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The U.N. visit to China failed victims who have been silenced yet again. Michelle Bachelet’s trip to China marks the first time a U.N. human rights commissioner has had access to China since 2005. However, as the trip has been highly choreographed, nothing of the “unfettered access” the U.N. has been asking for, the visit aids only the state propaganda. The U.N. visit was agreed in response to reports of severe human rights violations in Xinjiang, China, and especially, atrocities against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. The U.N. visit commenced mid-May 2022, with little being known of the scope of the inquiry, the powers of the investigative team, and terms of reference, among others.
On May 28, 2022, upon the conclusion of her visit, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated that it was not an investigation into China’s human rights policies. This ultimately means that the design of the visit prevented Michelle Bachelet and her team from conducting an investigation. Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping never intended to grant the U.N. team unfettered access. This much is clear. According to Bachelet, she spent two days in Kashgar and Urumqi, and “met with a range of officials, including the Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the Governor and the Vice-Governor in charge of public security, among others [and] visited Kashgar prison and the Kashgar Experimental School, a former Vocational Education and Training Centre (VETC), among other places.” However, she also emphasized that she was “unable to assess the full scale of the VETCs.” This again means that she has not been granted full and unfettered access and was only shown what the government wanted her to see.
Bachelet further phrased the concerns about the situation of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang as a result of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures – the official line of the Chinese Government’s justification of the dire treatment of the Uyghurs amounting to genocide and crimes against humanity. She added that, “The application of relevant laws and policies and any mandatory measures … need to be subject to independent judicial oversight with greater transparency in judicial proceedings.” It is highly unlikely that such dependent judicial oversight will be possible in a state that goes this far in its “counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures” and covering them by all means. Bachelet continued that she hoped that the visit “will encourage the government to review a number of policies to ensure that the human rights would be fully respected and protected.” Considering China’s human rights legacy, this hope is not substantiated.
The painfully diplomatic press conference did not deliver on what one would have expected considering the nature and severity of human rights violations in China. Bachelet indicated that the Chinese Government agreed to regular engagements with the U.N. Human Rights Office and to establish a working group to facilitate substantive exchanges and cooperation between the two. However, again, the agreed solution leaves out one but crucial detail – the involvement of victims.
If Michelle Bachelet is to give voice to the victims, the mantra that the U.N. Human Rights Council often repeats, several things need to happen without any further delays. First, Michelle Bachelet must work with victims and their representatives and ensure that she collates further evidence of the situation of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. Bachelet must give the voice to the victims rather than aid the state propaganda. Second, she must now publish her report produced before the failed visit to China. Third, the U.N. must establish a mechanism to monitor the situation and collect and preserve evidence of human rights violations in China that could help with the oversight Bachelet was calling for. The U.N. Human Rights Council needs to recalibrate its approach to China to one that does not silence victims.