Co-opted: The UN’s Misguided Mission to Xinjiang

The top UN human rights official recently traveled to Xinjiang province in China, hoping to persuade Beijing’s leaders to stop the internment of approximately 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Chinese Muslims in one of the world’s greatest human-rights catastrophes.

It was a thoroughly misguided mission.

Call it a cultural genocide, a crime against humanity, or (as I prefer) a genocide, the repression in Xinjiang Province is a well-documented Chinese government policy authorized by the specific order of President and communist party leader Xi Jinping.

On top of all the previous evidence of crimes against the Uyghurs, such as the testimony and documents presented late last year at the Uyghur Tribunal in London, we now have something unprecedented: hacked data, known as the “Xinjiang police files,” that contains images of more than 5,000 imprisoned Uyghurs, police spreadsheets, and confidential documents from two counties in Xinjiang.

The data, from internal police networks, proves that so-called reeducation camps are in fact internment centers, and that top Chinese leaders are directly responsible for creating them as part of a mass campaign to eradicate the Uyghur culture. The photographs also give us a look at the conditions that prisoners face in the centers.

As Dr. Adrian Zenz, a leading authority on the camps, says, “We have images of actual police drills showing how police are handcuffing detainees, shackling them, marching them off, and then even putting them into the ominous tiger chair for interrogation.”

A Failed Mission

Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, has been sitting for many months on a report on Chinese policy in Xinjiang. Many observers, especially people in Uyghur overseas communities and human rights organizations, have eagerly anticipated her report.

Rather than release it, Bachelet spent six days in China, including two in Xinjiang, at the invitation of Xi Jinping’s government. Though initially her office suggested the trip was an investigation, at its end she denied that, saying its chief purpose was “direct discussions . . . with a view to supporting China in fulfilling its obligations under international human rights law.”

In a public recounting, she complimented the Chinese leadership for its cooperation, lauded its social and economic achievements, and assured one and all that she had raised troubling human-rights issues with senior Chinese officials.

Considering Bachelet’s background as a victim of torture in the Pinochet era in Chile, she was surely aware that visiting a country under authoritarian rule is a potential trap. She had no real control over such a trip’s most important item: the agenda.

Indeed, Bachelet reported she was “unable to assess the full scale” of the so-called vocational education centers in Xinjiang—that is, the internment facilities—but was “assured” they had been “dismantled.” She spoke with civil society groups, jurists, and legal authorities—all no doubt hand-picked to reflect the views of the party-state.

She also said she had raised a number of concerning issues with the Chinese government, such as “allegations of the use of force and ill treatment” of prisoners and “the application of counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation measures” to Chinese Muslims. She “encouraged” the Chinese government to ensure that those measures conformed with international human rights law. (China has signed but not ratified the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as she pointed out.) And she did offer a few critical remarks on human-rights issues in Tibet and Hong Kong.

In all, her trip turned out to be a propaganda coup for Beijing. The visit was a classic Potemkin village experience in which the authorities kept Bachelet away from the victims of abuse and presented a false front to hide actual conditions. Of course she could not “assess the full scale” of the internment camps. Nor did she have any way to look into other aspects of Chinese policy, such as forced labor, separation of families, and deployment of prison labor to other provinces.

With little to say about the scope of the repression, she could not challenge China’s official narrative that justifies its abuses in the name of counter-terrorism. Even though the Chinese supposedly agreed to maintain a dialogue on the Uyghurs, rest assured any such dialogue will be just as one-sided if it occurs at all.

No Excuse

One might excuse Ms. Bachelet’s decision to go to China on the grounds that she could present the world community’s concerns about the Uyghurs directly to China’s leaders. She did so, but not in a way that has any hope of improving life for the Uyghurs, whether in or out of internment.

As the representative of the world community, and apparently a candidate for UN secretary-general—though following this trip, she decided not to seek a second term as HCR leader—she should not have put herself in position to be used by a regime that is eminently successful at hiding what it doesn’t want outsiders, or even its own people, to see.

Besides, what could possibly be learned in two days of a guided tour in Xinjiang? Imagine accepting an invitation from Vladimir Putin to evaluate war crimes in Ukraine by spending two days in Crimea.

This trip was an embarrassment both personal and institutional, symbolized by a presentation to Bachelet of a book of Xi’s thoughts on protecting human rights at the end of her visit. She should have given the Chinese the Xinjiang police files in return. Before she retires, she should release the report on Chinese policy.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.