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Uyghur groups urge resignation of UN rights chief for ‘Potemkin-style’ Xinjiang tour

Uyghur rights groups are calling for the United Nations human rights chief to resign after they said she reiterated Chinese talking points in a news conference about her trip to northwestern China’s Xinjiang region and failed to denounce the repression Uyghurs face there as a genocide.

Michelle Bachelet, a former Chilean president who has served as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights since 2018, paid a six-day visit to China last week, including spots in the coastal city of Guangzhou and Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi) and Kashgar (Kashi) in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

At a May 28 press conference in Beijing to mark the end of the visit, Bachelet said she had “raised questions and concerns about the application of counter-terrorism and de-radicalization measures and their broad application” and their impact on the rights of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in the XUAR.

 Bachelet, who said before her trip that she wouldn’t be conducting an investigation like Uyghur rights groups had pushed for, told reporters that she had been unable to assess the full scale of what China calls “vocational education and training centers” (VETC) in Xinjiang, but which the human rights community and scholars call internment camps.

 Uyghur rights groups took issue with her references to “deradicalization,” “anti-terrorism” and “vocational education and training centers,” which they said mimic the words Beijing uses to describe its campaign in Xinjiang.

Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Uyghurs said Bachelet provided no transparency about the trip and that a prison visit in Xinjiang was a “Potemkin-style sham.”

“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, the organization’s executive director, told RFA on Tuesday.

“Her comments seem custom-made for Beijing’s propaganda machine, and she neglects the duties of her office and the founding principle of the U.N.,” she said. Abbas called on Bachelet to step down from her post.

‘In bed with communist China’

Bachelet she said she raised with the government the lack of independent judicial oversight in the region, the reliance on 15 indicators to determine tendencies towards violent extremism, allegations of the use of force at the institutions, and reports of severe restrictions on religious practices.

“During my visit, the government assured me that the VETC system has been dismantled,” she said. “I encouraged the government to undertake a review of all counter terrorism and deradicalization policies to ensure they fully comply with international human rights standards, and in particular that they are not applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory way.”

In 2017, authorities began illegally detaining thousands of Uyghurs and others in “re-education” camps in an effort, they said, to prevent religious extremism and radicalism, later calling the facilities “closed training centers” or “vocational training centers.” But evidence quickly emerged that inmates had been deprived of their freedom under the pretense of political education and were in some case subjected to severe abuse.

It is believed that authorities have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and others accused of harboring “strong religious” and “politically incorrect” views in a vast network of “re-education” or internment camps in Xinjiang.

The United States and the legislatures of several Western countries have deemed China’s mistreatment of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in the XUAR as genocide and crimes against humanity.

Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress based in Germany, said Bachelet missed a historic opportunity to hold China accountable for the Uyghur genocide.

“The impression is that now the U.N. is in bed with communist China, a regime that has been committing the Uyghur genocide for the past five years,” he said Tuesday. “It is truly stunning to see that Ms. Bachelet did not act as the highest human rights official at the U.N. but rather as a mouthpiece of the Chinese communist government during and after her trip.

“She has completely discredited the role of her office and the authority of the United Nations as a champion of human rights in the world,” Isa said.  

Isa also called for Bachelet’s immediate resignation.

US expresses concern

The same day Bachelet held a press conference about her trip, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. remained concerned about her visit and efforts by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to restrict and manipulate it.

“While we continue to raise our concerns about China’s human rights abuses directly with Beijing and support others who do so, 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 in a statement.

The U.S. was also troubled by reports that authorities had warned Uyghurs and others in the XUAR not to complain or speak openly about conditions in the region, that no insight was provided into the whereabouts of missing Uyghurs and the conditions of those in detention, he said.

“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.   

In response to Blinken’s statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a press conference on Monday that the U.S. rehashed false claims that had been debunked countless times to try to smear and attack China.

“Ridiculously, this time they made up new lies that China has restricted and manipulated the visit,” he said. “In fact, all the activities and arrangements of High Commissioner Bachelet during her stay in China were decided in accordance with her will and based on full consultation of the two sides.”

“The high commissioner also said at the press conference that she had unsupervised and extensive meetings during the visit,” Zhao said. “Where is restriction and manipulation to speak of? To find the one trying to manipulate this visit, look no further than the U.S.”

Translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA Uyghur. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.