U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said her office had struck a deal with China for her to tour the country, including Xinjiang.
[Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images]
TAIPEI—Concern has grown among human-rights groups that the United Nations is deferring to Beijing in the organization’s response to China’s campaign to forcibly assimilate ethnic minorities in the country’s Xinjiang region.
A coalition of 192 human-rights organizations issued an open letter on Tuesday calling on the U.N. to publish a long-delayed report on Chinese government actions targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim groups in Xinjiang.
The letter was delivered shortly after U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said her office had struck a deal with China for her to tour the country, including Xinjiang, likely in May.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were among the groups that signed the letter, which called on Ms. Bachelet to release her team’s findings without further delay, “to send a message to victims and perpetrators alike that no state, no matter how powerful, is above international law or the robust independent scrutiny of your office.”
Human-rights activists say an assessment by the U.N. is an important step toward holding Beijing accountable for a campaign that independent researchers estimate has led to as many as a million people being detained in internment camps. They called for the U.N. to press China as early as 2018, when the organization first began to look into allegations from the region.
A Xinjiang facility believed to be an internment camp, shown in 2019
[Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images]
More recently, the U.S. State Department and lawmakers in Canada, the U.K., France and other mostly Western allies have argued that China’s actions in Xinjiang amount to a form of genocide, citing reports by researchers and journalists of involuntary birth control, political indoctrination and forced labor.
An independent, U.K.-based panel of lawyers, academics and activists came to the same conclusion in December following a yearlong investigation.
The International Criminal Court based in The Hague decided not to investigate allegations of abuse in Xinjiang in 2020, citing its lack of jurisdiction. Beijing decided against ratifying the treaty that established the court decades ago.
China has dismissed the genocide allegation as “the lie of the century,” characterizing its campaign in Xinjiang as an innovative response to religious extremism and terrorism. A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed at a news briefing on Wednesday that Beijing would facilitate Ms. Bachelet’s trip, which he said should “promote exchange and cooperation on both sides.”
More than 40 mostly Western nations called on China last year to grant the U.N. and other independent researchers “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang.”
Ms. Bachelet said in a video statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Tuesday that China had agreed to allow an advance team from her office to travel to China in April to pave the way for her visit. She didn’t disclose details of the arrangement and didn’t mention her office’s delayed report on Xinjiang.
Ms. Bachelet’s office said last September that it was completing its assessment of allegations of serious human-rights violations in Xinjiang. Shortly after, her spokesman said the report would be released “in a matter of weeks.”
Some human-rights activists told The Wall Street Journal that they were concerned the U.N. pushed back publication of the report to accommodate China’s hosting of the Winter Olympics in February and to ensure a trip by Ms. Bachelet could take place.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights declined to comment.
Outside a Xinjiang detention center last year.
[Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press]
“There’s an awful lot of deference to Beijing, and it’s not clear why,” said Human Rights Watch’s China director, Sophie Richardson.
Delaying the release of the Xinjiang report amounts to a failure by Ms. Bachelet to fulfill her mandate to investigate and seek redress for China’s human-rights violations, Ms. Richardson said, adding, “That’s the job.”
Ms. Richardson and other human-rights activists have urged the U.N. to move forward on its report regardless of the possibility and timing of on-the-ground access in Xinjiang, which they argue would be highly restricted by Chinese authorities.
Ms. Bachelet said her team’s visit would be subject to China’s Covid-19 restrictions. A quarantine period of up to three weeks is in place for all travelers to China.
The last time a high-level U.N. team visited Xinjiang to investigate human-rights conditions was in 2005, when Manfred Nowak, then the special rapporteur on torture for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, was allowed to visit China on a fact-finding mission. Approval for Mr. Nowak’s trip came a decade after the U.N.’s initial request to the Chinese government.
Chinese state-security and public-security officials attempted to obstruct his work and frequently surveilled the team at their hotel, the U.N. reported in a summary of his two-week visit. Chinese officers intimidated a number of alleged victims and family members and told them not to speak with Mr. Nowak, the summary said.
Peter Irwin, a senior program officer for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, said Ms. Bachelet’s visit would face similar challenges.
“The Uyghurs there cannot speak openly, cannot speak publicly because they are so scared of retaliation by local authorities who were watching very closely,” he said.
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