Has the UN achieved anything in Xinjiang?
When human rights are violated around the world, the UN manual calls for its envoy to travel to that country to assess the situation on the ground and then decide whether the allegations warrant a full-scale investigation. But what if you already know you won’t see anything you shouldn’t and that your trip will likely benefit the authoritarian government allegedly responsible for the atrocities?
Perhaps that’s how UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet felt on Saturday after wrapping up a much-anticipated visit to the Xinjiang region of northwest China. Beijing has long been accused of subjecting more than a million ethnic Uyghurs there at once to classic violations, such as detention without warrant, torture, sexual assault and separation from their families, as well as more Orwellian surveillance, forced labor and internment in re-education camps.
So why go there?
Beijing – as planned – choreographed the tour to whitewash China’s human rights record in Xinjiang. Bachelet’s itinerary was kept secret and she traveled without reporters. Even the preparation for the visit was marred by compromises: Bachelet’s office inexplicably delayed an important report on Xinjiang that it was due to release last year, despite announcing that would be “deeply disturbing”.
Moreover, Bachelet only spent two out of six days on the ground in Xinjiang. There she met senior officials, toured a prison, and toured an “experimental” school. More controversially, and in language echoing that of China, she said she visited a former vocational education and training center, part of a controversial program in which China has been accused of having use of forced labor and indoctrination.
Bachelet said that while she could not fully assess the notorious program, Beijing reassured her that it had been shut down (previously China had denied the program existed).
What Bachelet saw in China and how much access she had in Xinjiang has been a major source of controversy. She had called for unfettered access, but her tour was limited to a “closed loop” in a limited “bubble” due to what Beijing called COVID restrictions. Setting the political agenda in advance, Beijing insisted that the purpose of the visit be “friendly” and not investigative.
“This visit was not an investigation,” Bachelet acknowledged on Saturday. But she stressed the importance of engaging with senior officials and discussing human rights to pave the way to help China fulfill “its obligations under international human rights law” to the future.
The United States, of course, strongly criticized the tour. Even before Bachelet left China, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Beijing had succeeded in “limiting and manipulating” the visit, preventing Bachelet from making an independent assessment of the human rights situation in Xinjiang. He also lamented that she was unable to obtain information on hundreds of missing Uyghurs, nor to meet the families involved or anyone who had gone through the so-called labor transfer program of the China.
Human rights groups, for their part, say the trip did wonders for Beijing but accomplished little for others.
Bachelet “could have strengthened his hand by releasing his office’s long-awaited report on Xinjiang. She could have postponed the visit rather than accept significant constraints,” says Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, noting her skepticism that the trip will do anything to end human rights abuses in China. .
The trip was a wasted opportunity for the UN, says Mehmet Tothi, an activist with the Canada-based Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project.
“There was no unrestricted or meaningful access to places deemed sensitive by China. So it was open to manipulation and it became a propaganda tool for China,” he says. “In a sense, this trip simply awoke Western media to the stark reality that China is a major power in the UN these days.”
Fact is, they already know this in New York and Geneva, where China’s influence has grown rapidly over the past decade, according to Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group. .
“It’s a bit fanciful to imagine that any UN official, even a human rights official, would now go to Beijing to read Xi Jinping’s riot act on his security policy. interior,” Gowan said. “It’s morally depressing, but politically predictable.”
Finally, Bachelet’s cautious approach to China runs counter to his track record. The former Chilean president, seen as a staunch defender of human rights, has been remarkably forthcoming against abuse – from racism in the United States and Russian aggression in Ukraine to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the treatment of Palestinians by Israel – but barely a glance at China since she took office in 2018. She has denounced Beijing’s tough policy on Hong Kong but, until recently, has never issued a official statement about Xinjiang or even about Tibet.
It is disconcerting that someone who was imprisoned by Pinochet and fled Chile in the 1970s – and knows what Wrestle under a cruel dictatorship – said nothing about Xinjiang in his recent conference to Chinese students on human rights in Guangzhou. Ahead of last week’s trip, Bachelet defended herself, saying she is a ‘mature woman’ who is ‘able to read between the lines’ and that the priority was to engage directly with China on rights of man.
Still, getting Beijing to acknowledge its detention program and discuss its rollback is a victory for Bachelet, as well as having direct discussions with Chinese officials about topics they’d rather not talk about, especially with an annoying foreigner.
“It is imperative that the high commissioner be seen to be engaging with the Chinese government,” New York University professor Philip Alston, a former United Nations human rights official, said during an interview. a webinar last Friday. “Just the fact that she had a direct exchange with President Xi Jinping is an accomplishment.”
Beijing, for its part, has defended its actions with optimism, with Xi telling Bachelet that China’s handling of human rights “suits its own national conditions” and that following international institutional norms would be “deviating from reality”.
Also, no probe now doesn’t mean no probe later. Richardson remains hopeful that Bachelet will still commit to investigating and prosecuting China’s alleged crimes: “Failure to do so would reflect Beijing’s ability to render international human rights institutions utterly toothless.”
But no one is holding their breath for a thorough investigation. Many fear that Bachelet – a candidate for the UN’s top job – has put the world body in a difficult spot by agreeing to visit Xinjiang on Beijing’s terms. This risks damaging the reputation of his office and further damaging the reputation of the UN, which has been tainted by decades of ineffective diplomacy to solve the world’s problems.
While Bachelet’s tour was likely doomed before it started, engaging China and getting marginal reassurances from Beijing is a start. to address the very sensitive issue of Xinjiang. And diplomacy is a task that the United Nations is much more capable of carrying out than an investigation.
But the UN can only knock on Beijing’s door. It is the largest community of powerful international actors, such as the G7, which must organize and impose an overhaul on Beijing.