U.N. rights chief seeks Xinjiang visit this year in first suggestion of timeline

The top United Nations human rights official said Monday she hoped to agree on terms for a visit this year to China, including its Xinjiang region, to look into reports of serious violations against Muslim Uyghurs.

It was the first time that Michelle Bachelet had publicly suggested a timeline for the visit, for which her office has been negotiating the terms since September 2018.

China’s U.N. mission in Geneva, contacted by Reuters for comment, said Xinjiang and Hong Kong were “inalienable parts of China’s territory” and that it brooked “no interference by external forces.”

Its spokesman, Liu Yuyin, later said in a statement that China welcomed Bachelet to visit, including Xinjiang, but the visit should be a “friendly one” aimed at promoting cooperation “rather than making the so-called ‘investigation’ under the presumption of guilt.”

Bachelet is under growing pressure from Western states to secure unfettered access to Xinjiang, where activists say more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims have been held in camps, some of them mistreated or subject to forced labor.

Beijing denies the accusations and describes the camps as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.

“I continue to discuss with China modalities for a visit, including meaningful access, to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and hope this can be achieved this year, particularly as reports of serious human rights violations continue to emerge,” Bachelet told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued reports this year documenting practices that they said could meet criteria for crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

Bachelet told the council that the national security law imposed in Hong Kong a year ago had had a “chilling impact” on democratic space and media in the former British colony. She said 107 people had been arrested under the law, including 57 formally charged, and that the first trials were due this week.

“This will be an important test of independence for Hong Kong’s judiciary in its willingness to uphold Hong Kong’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in accordance with the Basic Law,” she said.

A screen shows a picture of Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a traffic junction in Hotan, in China's far-west Xinjiang region, on April 30. | REUTERS
A screen shows a picture of Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a traffic junction in Hotan, in China’s far-west Xinjiang region, on April 30. | REUTERS

Government officials in Beijing and Hong Kong say the national security law is needed to avert threats to national security, and that the rights and freedoms of ordinary Hong Kong people are being be protected.

“The High Commissioner is advised to stop making erroneous remarks against China, and refrain from interfering in China’s sovereignty and judicial independence,” Liu said.

Critics say the law is being used to crush dissent in the global financial hub, an assertion Beijing rejects.

Beyond China, the U.N. rights chief also called for concerted action to recover from the worst global deterioration of rights she had seen, highlighting the situations in Russia and Ethiopia among others.

“To recover from the most wide-reaching and severe cascade of human rights setbacks in our lifetimes, we need a life-changing vision, and concerted action,” Bachelet told the council.

The session, which lasts until July 13 and is being held virtually, is set to feature an eagerly anticipated report by Bachelet about systemic racism, and draft resolutions on Myanmar, Belarus and Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

In her opening address, Bachelet said she was deeply disturbed by reports of “serious violations” in Tigray, racked by war and with about 350,000 people threatened by famine.

She pointed to “extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, sexual violence against children as well as adults,” and said she had “credible reports” that Eritrean soldiers were still operating in the region.

Other parts of Ethiopia, which held elections on Monday, were also seeing “alarming incidents of deadly ethnic and intercommunal violence and displacement,” Bachelet said.

“The ongoing deployment of military forces is not a durable solution,” she said, calling for national dialogue.

Bachelet also decried the situation in northern Mozambique, ravaged by recent deadly jihadi violence, where she said food insecurity was rising and “almost 800,000 people, including 364,000 children” had now been forced to flee their homes.

Bachelet also criticized recent measures by the Kremlin shrinking the space for opposing political views and access to participation in September elections.

She highlighted the recent moves to dismantle the movement of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Barring his organizations from working in the country, a Moscow court earlier this month branded them as “extremist” in a ruling Bachelet said was “based on vaguely defined allegations of attempting to change the foundations of constitutional order.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed legislation outlawing staff, members and sponsors of “extremist” groups from running in parliamentary elections.

“I call on Russia to uphold civil and political rights,” Bachelet said.

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