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Michelle Bachelet’s Failed Xinjiang Trip Has Tainted Her Whole Legacy

The U.N. human rights commissioner ended up whitewashing China’s atrocities.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet leaves after she addressed the press on the opening day of the 50th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 13.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet leaves after she addressed the press on the opening day of the 50th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 13.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet leaves after she addressed the press on the opening day of the 50th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 13. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights is one of the world’s custodians of justice, civil liberties, and accountability. Navi Pillay initiated a U.N. inquiry into crimes against humanity in North Korea. Zeid Raad Al Hussein called for an International Criminal Court probe into atrocities committed against Rohingyas in Myanmar. In contrast, Michelle Bachelet, who has just announced she won’t stand for a second term as high commissioner, whitewashed the crimes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

Whoever holds the office of U.N. high commissioner for human rights is looked to as a moral leader. As a senior official in Geneva told me recently, it is the high commissioner’s job to shine a clear, robust, and unambiguous spotlight on human rights violations around the world—and then for diplomats and politicians to negotiate the policy responses. It appears that Bachelet, a former president of Chile, became confused about her role and instead took it upon herself to be a political and diplomatic negotiator with Beijing, forgetting her responsibility to be the whistleblower and moral conscience of the U.N. system.

Bachelet has spent the past four years negotiating a visit to China. Civil society activists cannot complain that she went last month—we, after all, have been demanding access for the U.N. high commissioner, especially to Xinjiang, the region in China where the regime is increasingly accused of genocide. But the timing, nature, and outcome of her visit have left a sad stain on her years in office.

The United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights is one of the world’s custodians of justice, civil liberties, and accountability. Navi Pillay initiated a U.N. inquiry into crimes against humanity in North Korea. Zeid Raad Al Hussein called for an International Criminal Court probe into atrocities committed against Rohingyas in Myanmar. In contrast, Michelle Bachelet, who has just announced she won’t stand for a second term as high commissioner, whitewashed the crimes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

Whoever holds the office of U.N. high commissioner for human rights is looked to as a moral leader. As a senior official in Geneva told me recently, it is the high commissioner’s job to shine a clear, robust, and unambiguous spotlight on human rights violations around the world—and then for diplomats and politicians to negotiate the policy responses. It appears that Bachelet, a former president of Chile, became confused about her role and instead took it upon herself to be a political and diplomatic negotiator with Beijing, forgetting her responsibility to be the whistleblower and moral conscience of the U.N. system.

Bachelet has spent the past four years negotiating a visit to China. Civil society activists cannot complain that she went last month—we, after all, have been demanding access for the U.N. high commissioner, especially to Xinjiang, the region in China where the regime is increasingly accused of genocide. But the timing, nature, and outcome of her visit have left a sad stain on her years in office.

In a press conference after the visit, Bachelet revealed her true colors. She parroted Beijing’s language about “counter-terrorism” and “de-radicalisation,” praised China’s role in “multilateralism,” and trumpeted the CCP’s achievements in eradicating poverty. She has turned into a classic useful idiot, played skillfully by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Her press statement was Orwellian. She spoke at length of universal health care and “almost universal” unemployment insurance and commended China for promoting gender equality but said nothing of well-documented and systematic sexual violence, forced sterilization, forced abortions, human trafficking, torture, crimes against humanity, and genocide. She spoke of labor rights but stayed silent about rampant slave labor. And unfathomably, she praised Chinese business for “embracing human rights standards” while they continue to use forced labor in their production lines and supply chains.

Most bizarre was her reference to meeting “civil society organisations, academics, and community and religious leaders.” I wonder whom they would have been, given that most civil society groups in China have been shut down, most academics have been shut up, and many religious and community leaders have been locked up.

The visit took place at a time when China was enduring renewed COVID-19 restrictions—giving the regime the perfect excuse to limit Bachelet’s movements. Sure enough, even her final press conference was restricted to being virtual. While even at the best of times no one would have expected her to have full and unfettered access to Xinjiang’s hundreds of prison camps, traveling under the cover of COVID-19 meant that she saw next to nothing of the truth of the regime’s atrocities.

Since the visit, Bachelet has been insistent that the visit “was not an investigation.” That may be true, but if so, why delay the release of a report by her office into the human rights situation in Xinjiang that presumably was an investigation? And why talk about an “investigation” for four years and then claim that was not the aim?

Three months ago, I traveled to Geneva to appeal to the U.N. high commissioner to do two things. First, to meet with Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers, and exiled mainland Chinese dissidents before the visit. Second, alongside the atrocities in Xinjiang, which were rightly the primary focus of the visit, to raise Hong Kong, Tibet, violations of religious freedom, and other serious human rights violations throughout China. My colleagues and I offered to help arrange a briefing for her with diaspora representatives. Our offer was never taken up. And from what she said in her post-visit press conference, I have very little confidence that she raised the issues we asked her to.

Her remarks on Hong Kong and Tibet were laughable. On Hong Kong, she said it was “important that the government there do all it can to nurture—and not stifle—the tremendous potential for civil society and academics” to contribute to “the promotion and protection of human rights.” Has she not read China’s draconian National Security Law or seen the arrests of dozens of activists, jailed without bail; the closure of more than 50 civil society groups; the shutdown of almost all independent media; and the crackdown on press freedom over the past two years? Did she not notice the arrest in May of Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen, internationally renowned barrister Margaret Ng, or popular singer Denise Ho?

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet imprisoned Bachelet’s father, and she and her mother were detained subsequently under house arrest. That ought to give her some idea of what the millions of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in prison camps in western China face—as well as Hong Kongers, Tibetans, Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, lawyers, bloggers, and dissidents across China. Yet instead of empathizing, she slapped the victims in the face, whitewashed the atrocities, and handed Xi a propaganda coup.

Bachelet’s visit coincided with the release of the “Xinjiang Police Files,” a major cache of leaked official documents, speeches, and images providing a groundbreaking inside view of the camps in Xinjiang. Yet she made no reference to this evidence. She also ignored repeated statements by the United Nations’ own special rapporteurs, who have expressed their alarm at the repression of fundamental freedoms in China.

Last week, more than 40 members of the U.N. Special Procedures—various thematic special rapporteurs and working groups—called on China to “cooperate fully with the UN human rights system and grant unhindered access to independent experts who have received and addressed allegations of significant human rights violations and repression of fundamental freedoms in the country.” Their statement reiterated the calls made in June 2020 by 50 U.N. special rapporteurs and human rights experts for the U.N. Human Rights Council to convene a special session on China, to consider the creation of a Special Procedure mandate for China, and for the appointment of a special envoy or a panel of experts to monitor the human rights situation in China. It was an implicit rebuke to Bachelet from her own human rights experts.

Last week’s statement followed one from 40 scholars from around the world, who denounced Bachelet’s visit and demanded she release her long-awaited report on the Uyghurs immediately, saying they were “deeply disturbed” by her official statement.

On June 8, 230 human rights organizations representing Uyghur, Tibetan, Hong Kong, and other China campaigns issued a statement demanding Bachelet’s resignation.

Bachelet lost the confidence of her own special rapporteurs, leading scholars and experts on human rights in China, human rights NGOs, and the diaspora. This irreparably stains her legacy. She started out well, speaking out clearly against police brutality in Hong Kong and against atrocities in Myanmar, but much of the good she may have done has been overshadowed by the fiasco of her China visit. Perhaps she realized this and decided to jump before being pushed.

Benedict Rogers is the co-founder and CEO of Hong Kong Watch, a senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW, and the co-founder and deputy chair of the U.K. Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

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