UN rights chief begins landmark China trip from Monday

Geneva (AFP) – The UN rights chief will travel to China’s Xinjiang region next week for a visit under intense international scrutiny after demands for her to call out abuses against its Uyghur minority.

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After years of requesting “meaningful and unfettered” access to far-western Xinjiang, Michelle Bachelet will finally stage a six-day mission to China starting Monday, her office said.

The visit, at the invitation of Beijing, has been widely anticipated and marks the first trip to China by a UN rights chief since Louise Arbour went there in 2005.

Bachelet herself has been demanding access to all regions of China since she took office in 2018.

She has repeatedly voiced concern about allegations of widespread abuses in Xinjiang but has been criticised for not taking a strong enough stance.

The visit comes as rights groups pile pressure on her office to release a long-postponed report on the situation in the region.

Beijing has waged a years-long crackdown in the province in the name of stamping out terrorism and developing one of its poorest regions.


But rights campaigners accuse the ruling Communist Party of widespread abuses in the name of security, saying at least one million mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in “re-education camps”.

The US government and lawmakers in a number of other Western countries have labelled China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang “genocide”.

Beijing has vociferously denied the allegations, calling them the “lie of the century” and arguing that its policies have countered extremism and improved livelihoods.

In March, the UN rights office announced an agreement had finally been reached on arranging a visit.

Bachelet will meet “a number of high-level officials at the national and local levels”, her office said Friday, adding that she would “also meet with civil society organisations, business representatives, academics, and deliver a lecture to students at Guangzhou University.”

An advance team was sent to China several weeks ago to prepare the visit, and has completed a lengthy quarantine in the country, currently in the grip of fresh Covid outbreaks.

Bachelet, who will not need to quarantine, is not travelling to Beijing due to Covid restrictions but will go to Kashgar and Urumqi in Xinjiang.

‘Legacy’ at stake

Despite Bachelet’s demands for “unfettered” access, rights groups said the terms of the visit have not been disclosed.

They have voiced concern that Chinese authorities, who have always insisted they were only interested in a “friendly visit”, could manipulate the trip.

“It defies credibility that the Chinese government will allow the high commissioner to see anything they don’t want her to see, or allow human rights defenders, victims and their families to speak to her safely, unsupervised and without fear of reprisal,” Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch (HRW) China director said in a statement.

The trip, which comes as Bachelet’s four-year mandate nears a close with no indication yet on whether she plans to seek a second term, is not without risk for the former president of Chile.

Rights groups, diplomats and others have made no secret they expect her to take a strong stand.

They are also demanding her office release its long-delayed report on the situation in Xinjiang.

But a spokeswoman for Bachelet said Tuesday it would not be released before her trip, and that there was no clear timing for making it public.

HRW’s Richardson said: “Bachelet’s legacy as high commissioner will be measured by her willingness to hold a powerful state accountable for crimes against humanity committed on her watch.”

© 2022 AFP