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Activists and survivors deeply disappointed at UN High Commissioner's failure to condemn rights violations

7 Jun 2022

Human rights defenders, activist groups and survivors of human rights violations in China and across the world have expressed their anger, frustration and disappointment at the failure of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to condemn human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese authorities following her visit to China from 23-28 May.

In a letter signed by 60 organisations and issued in April 2022, CSW and other signatories set out benchmarks and recommendations for the visit, including measures to ensure transparency, safety and freedom of inquiry. Prior to the visit, CSW also urged the High Commissioner to raise violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) targeting Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant and other communities as a matter of urgency, warning that “without transparent and concrete outcomes, this visit risks compounding the disappointment of witnesses and survivors of human rights violations, both inside China and in the diaspora”.

The High Commissioner’s visit statement on 28 May failed to address these concerns. It did not condemn the mass arbitrary detention of over one million Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in re-education camps in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, with the High Commissioner instead using the Chinese government’s term of “Vocational Education and Training Centres” when referring to these facilities. This term fails to match witness reports and leaked documents revealing a “shoot-to-kill” policy in response to escape attempts, and widespread sexual violence, torture and forced labour in connection with the camps.

The High Commissioner did appeal to the authorities to take measures to provide information to families who have “lost contact with their loved ones”, but without acknowledging that XUAR residents can be forcibly disappeared for contacting relatives overseas, which is the real reason for this lost contact.

The statement also avoided direct criticism of China’s human rights record. It mentioned Tibet only briefly, making no mention of the arbitrary detention and torture of Tibetan activists and Buddhist monks, and other egregious human rights violations. It also made only passing mention of “concerns” about the penalising of human rights defenders’ legitimate activities, and made no mention of the widespread and severe violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief against Catholics, Falun Gong practitioners, Protestants and others.

The statement and highly-restricted visit have met with widespread frustration from Uyghur, Tibetan, Hong Kong and Chinese activists, organisations and family members. Among them are Rushan Abbas of Campaign for Uyghurs, the Tibetan rights organisation Free Tibet, and human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, who completed a four-year prison sentence in March 2022.

Yu Wensheng commented on Twitter: "The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet's visit to China makes me feel that she is not here to criticise China for its human rights issues, but rather to apologise for criticising China's human rights issues. I do not think she is fit to continue to be the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights." 

One Muslim scholar, who must remain anonymous for security reasons, told CSW: “[The High Commissioner’s] visit did not work. It only gave the CCP an additional opportunity to put on a show. Bachelet did not raise the issues at all. Why did she not mention anything about all the evidence, especially the more than 2,800 photos (of Xinjiang camp detainees) that came to light since her visit? Everyone was disgusted: it was a shameless show.”

The visit has also been criticised by members of several foreign governments, including the EU foreign affairs spokesperson Nabila Massrali, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, and spokespeople for the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and the German Federal Foreign Office.

In their statements, the EU, UK and Germany also called on the High Commissioner to release a long-awaited report on the human rights situation in Xinjiang.

CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: “CSW is deeply disappointed that the UN High Commissioner has failed to condemn the serious human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese authorities, including violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, especially given her personal experiences of exile, and the arbitrary detention, torture, and death in custody of a family member. We are also dismayed at the lack of transparency surrounding the terms of the visit, and a failure to fully engage with witnesses and survivors of human rights violations, as well as civil society organisations both prior to and during the visit. It is hard to overstate the anger and disappointment of the family members of people who have suffered even to the point of death at the hands of this regime. Rather than providing new hope for accountability, this visit and the subsequent statement risk undermining the credibility of the High Commissioner’s office. Uyghurs and other activist groups have already called for the resignation of the High Commissioner.  At a minimum, the UN Secretary General should ensure that her mandate is not renewed.

“We further recommend that the next High Commissioner engages fully with independent civil society organisations, human rights defenders and survivors, including in the diaspora, drawing on their wealth of first-hand information about human rights violations in China. The High Commissioner should work closely with Special Procedures mandate-holders and Treaty Bodies to analyse information and formulate recommendations. Special care should be taken to ensure that the terms of any future visits are transparent and that engagement with the Chinese government is transparent and respectful of the mandate, allowing for criticism and robust recommendations where these are warranted. Most urgently, we call for the release of the OHCHR report on human rights violations in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region without further delay, and for opportunities to be created at the upcoming Human Rights Council session for its full and thorough examination and discussion by UN member states.”



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