GENEVA — Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations’ top human rights official, will visit China next week, including the troubled western region of Xinjiang, on a journey that human rights activists say poses significant risks to the credibility of her office.
Ms Bachelet’s trip will be the first official visit to China by a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights since 2005, after years of talks with Beijing to sort it out. But only vague details have emerged about what it will do and hope to achieve in China, which has been under attack by the West for its human rights record and has resisted external scrutiny.
A brief statement released by her office on Friday said Ms Bachelet’s six-day trip, starting Monday, will include visits to the southern city of Guangzhou, where she will lecture at a local university, and to the cities of Urumqi and Kashgar in Xinjiang. It said it would meet representatives of social groups, business leaders and academics in Xinjiang.
The statement lacked any explanation of the objectives of the visit or information about who she will meet from the Chinese government. Her office has previously said she would not travel to Beijing but would talk to senior members of the government.
Visits by United Nations human rights chiefs usually provide them with an opportunity to examine the human rights situation first-hand, talk with activists and victims of abuse, and raise issues directly with national leaders.
Concerns about the human rights situation in China have escalated dramatically in recent years as a result of the crackdown by Xi Jinping, the country’s supreme leader, against activists, lawyers and the media, and the draconian measures taken against the Uyghur Muslim minority in China. Xinjiang.
Academic researchers have calculated that Chinese authorities have detained about a million people in camps and subjected the region’s residents to Orwellian levels of surveillance and control over every detail of life, down to the names given to children.
China has dismissed the allegations as politically motivated lies and defamatory misrepresentations of policies that have lifted millions of people out of poverty while eradicating Muslim extremism. Human rights groups say Beijing’s actions amount to crimes against humanity and the United States has said China’s actions amount to genocide.
Ms Bachelet’s approach to addressing these issues is largely unknown. Officials have said she hopes to have dialogue with leaders on a range of issues and to “build engagement” between her office and the Chinese government.
A forward-thinking team of five arrived in China on April 25 to set the stage for a visit that its office says should be “meaningful with unsupervised access” to a wide range of civil society representatives and sites.
But China’s sensitivity to criticism, its track record of retaliating against activists and its ubiquitous surveillance capabilities seem to leave little room for meeting those criteria.
Chinese officials have bluntly said that the visit should “in no way” become a “so-called investigation”, stressing that Beijing is only open to a “friendly visit” to promote “exchanges and cooperation” between the Chinese authorities and the United Nations. human rights agency.
The latest on China: important things to know
An uncertain harvest. Chinese officials warn that, following heavy rains last fall, a disappointing winter wheat crop in June could push food prices — already high due to the war in Ukraine and bad weather in Asia and the United States — up further, fueling hunger in the United States. the poorest countries in the world.
In the absence of more clarity about the objectives of her visit, human rights groups have only her previous comments about China as a basis for assessing what her visit might bring.
The precedents do not inspire confidence in human rights groups, said Raphael David of the International Service for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization in Geneva.
Ms. Bachelet has spoken out against abuses in many countries and condemned racism in the United States, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, coups in Myanmar and Sudan and many other cases. This month alone, she has made statements about developments in Afghanistan, Haiti, Mexico, Israel and the occupied West Bank, and Sri Lanka.
Ms Bachelet has said little about China since she took office in 2018. She has expressed concern about the shrinking freedoms in Hong Kong, but has never made a statement about Xinjiang. For months, the publication of a report prepared by her agency on China’s actions in Xinjiang and its treatment of the Uyghur minority has been delayed.
“She has never spoken the word Tibet in three and a half years,” Kalden Tsomo, an advocacy officer with the Tibet Bureau in Geneva, said during a protest outside Ms Bachelet’s lake office in Geneva last week. Human rights groups and Western governments have also accused China of suppressing religious and language rights, including in Tibet.
Her reluctance could come at a heavy price, human rights groups say, by allowing leaders in Beijing to avoid any public criticism of their human rights record and pointing to Ms Bachelet’s visit as evidence of China’s cooperation with the United Nations.
Ms Bachelet’s visit is “an extraordinary test of the resilience of the UN human rights system as a whole,” said Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director. “If a permanent member of the Security Council committing crimes against humanity launders his record through this visit, the whole world should be scared.”