Amid growing pressure from rights groups, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, will update the 49th session of the Human Rights Council on March 7 on her efforts to assess the situation in Xinjiang, a spokesperson from her office told VOA.
In recent weeks, rights activists and U.S. politicians have been pressuring Bachelet to release a report on human rights in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China that is home to Uyghurs who are Muslim and a minority group.
Mainly Western countries, including the United States, and rights organizations accuse China of human rights violations, including forced sterilization of Uyghur women, torture, forced labor and the detention of more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic groups in internment camps in Xinjiang. The U.S. government has described the violations as genocide and crimes against humanity.
The push for the release of the report comes after years of unsuccessful efforts by Bachelet’s office to negotiate the terms of a visit to Xinjiang to assess the human rights situation there.
In a video speech to the 49th United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva on Monday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “The door of Xinjiang is open, and we welcome people from all countries to visit Xinjiang and have exchanges.”
He went on to refute allegations of abuse and said, “The so-called genocide, forced labor and religious repression, are lies that are completely fabricated."
China says the facilities in Xinjiang are only vocational training centers – and that Beijing’s Xinjiang policies are aimed at fighting extremism, terrorism and separatism.
While discussions between Bachelet’s office and Beijing are ongoing, “the parameters for a visit will have to be such that the High Commissioner has unfettered, meaningful access, including unsupervised interviews with civil society,” the high commissioner’s spokesperson, Liz Throssell, told VOA in an email.
Uyghurs’ rights groups are doubtful there will be changes to the status quo.
“We don't expect the visit will take place soon, given that the high commissioner has failed to reach an agreement with the government of China for the past three years,” said Zumretay Arkin, program and advocacy manager at the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress.
A Uyghur government official in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, told VOA that for any Uyghur “to be able to speak [freely] and tell what is happening, they [would] have to be out” of China.
“There’s a tragedy in every [Uyghur] family, at least someone has disappeared without a trace. But I can’t tell you in detail,” the Uyghur official who requested anonymity for his safety said. “No one is calm. Every family is weeping over someone.”
Abdulhakim Idris, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Uyghur Studies, accuses Bachelet of being mostly passive on Uyghur human rights since she assumed her position in September 2018.
“These are not only my words; even her official told us that she had been disregarding the reports and documents detailing Uyghur human rights” in China, Idris told VOA.
Idris said that in late 2018, he and other Uyghur rights activists met a Bachelet office staffer in Geneva who was working on the China human rights issue.
“We were told that when reports and documents got into her office, the reports they had submitted would be ignored,” Idris said.
“Every year Uyghurs hoped that on behalf of the U.N., Bachelet would say something about the Uyghurs’ dire human rights situation,” Idris said. “All these years, Bachelet had been careful not to anger China, that’s why she has been delaying this urgent report.”
In an email, Bachelet’s office told VOA the accusations are false and that since allegations of “human rights violations in Xinjiang emerged, the U.N. Human Rights Office has been consistently gathering, documenting and analyzing the information that has come to our attention.” Bachelet’s office also said she has been working on visiting Xinjiang “based on meaningful access” while continuing to monitor the situation and assess the situation there remotely.
Last September, Bachelet expressed regret at not making any progress on her “efforts to seek meaningful access to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” to probe human rights.
"In the meantime, my office is finalizing its assessment of the available information on allegations of serious human rights violations in that region, with a view to making it public,” Bachelet said at the opening of the Human Rights Council in September in Geneva.
In December, after an unofficial tribunal in London said that China has “committed genocide and crimes against humanity and torture against Uyghurs, Kazakh and other ethnic minority citizens” in Xinjiang, a spokesperson for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Rupert Colville, said that Bachelet had hoped to publish the report on Xinjiang in the coming weeks.
Adrian Zenz is director and senior fellow of China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington. Zenz said the only way to make genuine progress on documenting China’s actions would be to take Uyghurs out of Xinjiang for completely unsupervised conversations with U.N. officials.
However, if it is a visit as suggested by Wang, Beijing will “closely control what people see on the ground, and that’s all the more because actually a fairly substantial number of internment camps have been securitized or closed down,” Zenz told VOA. “People have been shifted into forced labor or sentenced to long-term prisons.”