UN rights chief to make landmark trip to China’s Xinjiang region

Michelle Bachelet’s visit marks the first trip to China by a UN human rights commissioner since 2005.

The UN human rights chief will travel to China’s Xinjiang region next week for a visit that will receive intense international scrutiny amid demands for her to call out Beijing’s abuses against the Uighur minority.

After years of requesting “meaningful and unfettered” access to China’s far-western Xinjiang region, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet will stage a six-day mission to China starting Monday, her office said on Friday.

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

“During her visit, the High Commissioner is due to meet with a number of high-level officials at the national and local levels,” Bachelet’s office said in a statement, adding that she would “also meet with civil society organisations, business representatives, academics, and deliver a lecture to students at Guangzhou University”.

Bachelet, who has been demanding access to all regions of China since she took office in 2018, has repeatedly voiced concern about allegations of widespread abuses in Xinjiang. But she has also received criticism for not taking a strong enough stance with China.

Rights groups said the terms of the UN commissioner’s visit have not been disclosed, and they have voiced concern that Chinese authorities, who have always insisted they were only interested in a “friendly visit”, could manipulate the trip.

The US said on Friday it was “deeply concerned” about Bachelet’s visit based on an understanding of restrictions the UN chief will be subjected to in China.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price also called on Bachelet to release a report by the UN on conditions in Xinjiang, where the US says China’s government is committing genocide against Uighur Muslims.

Rights groups, diplomats and others have made no secret that they expect the UN chief to take a strong stand.

“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’s China director said in a statement.

‘Re-education camps’

The UN human rights chief’s visit comes as groups apply pressure on her office to release a long-postponed report on the situation in Xinjiang.

Beijing has waged a years-long crackdown in region in the name of stamping out so-called terrorism and developing what is one of the country’s poorest regions.

Human rights campaigners accuse China’s ruling Communist Party of widespread abuses in Xinjiang in the name of security, saying at least one million mostly Muslim Uighur minority members have been imprisoned in “re-education camps”.

China’s treatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang has been “genocide” by legislators in the US and in a number of other Western countries.

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

An advance UN team was sent to China several weeks ago to prepare for Bachelet’s visit, and has completed a lengthy quarantine in the country, currently in the grip of fresh COVID outbreaks, according to the UN.

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.

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