GENEVA – Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations’ top human rights official, will next week visit China, including its troubled western region of Xinjiang, on a trip that rights activists say holds significant risks for the credibility of her office.
The trip by Ms. Bachelet will be the first official visit to China by a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights since 2005, after years of discussions with Beijing to arrange it. But only sketchy details have emerged about what she will do and hopes to achieve in China, which has been under fire from the West over its human rights record and has resisted outside 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 deliver a lecture at a local university, and to the cities of Urumqi and Kashgar in Xinjiang. It said she would meet with representatives of civil society groups and business leaders and academics in Xinjiang.
Missing from the statement was any explanation of the visit’s objectives or information about who she will meet from the Chinese government. Her office has previously said that she would not travel to Beijing but would have talks with senior members of the government.
Visits by United Nations human rights chiefs typically provide them with an opportunity to examine human rights conditions at first hand, to talk to activists and victims of abuse, and to directly raise issues with national leaders.
Concerns over the human rights situation in China have escalated dramatically in recent years as a result of the crackdown by Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, on activists, lawyers and the media, and the draconian measures unleashed on the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang.
Academic researchers calculate that Chinese authorities have detained around a million people in camps and subjected the region’s inhabitants 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 slanderous misrepresentations of policies that have lifted millions from poverty while stamping out Muslim extremism. Human rights groups say Beijing’s actions amount to crimes against humanity and the United States has said that China’s actions amount to genocide.
Ms. Bachelet’s approach to tackling these issues is largely unknown. Officials have said she hopes to have a dialogue with leaders on a range of issues and “build engagement” between her office and the Chinese government.
A five-person advance team arrived in China on April 25 to prepare the ground for a visit that her office has insisted should be “meaningful with unsupervised access” to a wide range of civil society representatives and locations.
But China’s sensitivity to criticism, its record of reprisals against activists and its pervasive surveillance capabilities appear to leave little space for meeting those criteria.
Chinese officials have said bluntly that the visit should “in no way” become a “so-called investigation,” insisting that Beijing is open only to a “friendly visit” to “promote exchanges and cooperation” between the Chinese authorities and the United Nations human rights office.
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In the absence of more clarity about the aims of her visit, human rights groups have only her previous comments about China as a basis for assessing what her visit might produce.
The precedents do not inspire confidence among rights groups, said Raphael David of the International Service for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization in Geneva.
Ms. Bachelet has spoken out against abuses in many countries, condemning racism in the United States, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, coups in Myanmar and Sudan and a host of other issues. This month alone she has issued statements on developments in Afghanistan, Haiti, Mexico, Israel and the occupied West Bank, and Sri Lanka.
On China, Ms. Bachelet has said little since taking office in 2018. She has expressed concern about shrinking freedoms in Hong Kong but has never issued a statement on Xinjiang. For months, the release of a report compiled by her office on China’s actions in Xinjiang and the treatment of its Uyghur minority has been stalled.
“In three and a half years she has never uttered the word Tibet,” Kalden Tsomo, an advocacy officer with the Tibet Bureau in Geneva, said during a protest outside Ms. Bachelet’s lakeside office in Geneva last week. Human rights groups and western governments have also accused China of repressing religious and language rights, among other things, in Tibet.
Her reticence 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 point to Ms. Bachelet’s visit as proof of China’s cooperation with the United Nations.
Ms. Bachelet’s visit represents “an extraordinary test of the resilience of the UN human rights system as a whole,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “If a permanent member of the Security Council that is committing crimes against humanity whitewashes its record through this visit the whole world needs to be frightened.”