Before U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet made her long-awaited tip to China last week, the Biden administration and the human rights community urged her not to let Beijing turn the visit into a propaganda win for the Chinese Communist Party. But Bachelet ignored those warnings. Her trip ended up helping China deny its genocide against Uyghur Muslims and other repressive policies, harming the cause of human rights accountability in the process.
On Saturday, Bachelet completed her six-day trip to China, the first in 17 years by someone with her title, with a statement to the media that summed up a visit many observers view as a tragic failure. As Human Rights Watch U.N. director Louis Charbonneau rightly observed, she grotesquely praised China’s “tremendous achievements” in human rights by pointing to poverty alleviation — which is exactly how Beijing defines human rights these days. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Bachelet is supposed to be following, calls for a higher standard.
After a two-day visit to the Xinjiang region, Bachelet failed to clearly condemn the government’s campaign of repression there, which the Uyghur community and two successive U.S. administrations have said amounts to genocide. She acquiesced to Beijing’s framing of the issue there as “counterterrorism and radicalization”. She also reported without skepticism that Chinese officials in Xinjiang claim to have closed the “reeducation centers” where an estimated 2 million innocent people have been imprisoned.
“She has failed her mandate”, Dolkun Isa, the president of World Uyghur Congress, said Saturday. “The Uyghur community deserves accountability more than ever”.
Perhaps Bachelet was too busy hobnobbing with Chinese officials to notice that a huge cache of leaked documents from the Xinjiang police files were released last week. They show the faces of thousands of prisoners thrown into the camps for such “crimes” as traveling abroad, studying Islam or growing a beard. Critics say that Bachelet allowed the Chinese authorities to stage-manage her trip so thoroughly that Beijing will be able to use it to deflect responsibility for its atrocities.
“Nothing that we’ve seen from the high commissioner’s trip to China dispels our worry that this will be used as a massive propaganda victory for the Chinese government”, Charbonneau told me in an interview. “Bachelet needs to work to put an end to, and not enable, the perception that the U.N. is letting China get away with massive abuses at no cost”.
There were public and private efforts to warn Bachelet this would happen. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield went so far as to raise formal concerns about Bachelet’s trip with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres himself, administration sources told me.
Blinken, Thomas-Greenfield and several other U.S. officials also raised concerns directly with Bachelet and her staff, urging them not to back down from their initial demand for access to Xinjiang and the prison facilities there. The Biden team coordinated these messages with other Western governments. The result of those diplomatic conversations was a strong statement in the May 14 Group of Seven foreign ministers’ communique, which called on Chinese authorities to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang and Tibet for independent observers, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights”.
On Saturday, Blinken released a statement criticizing Beijing for restricting Bachelet’s movements so thoroughly that it was impossible for her to conduct a complete and independent assessment of human rights in China, “including in Xinjiang, where genocide and crimes against humanity are ongoing”.
There were plenty of other signs Bachelet was heading into a debacle. Chinese authorities compelled her advance team to quarantine for 21 days upon arriving in Beijing, relegating their meetings during that time to video calls. Bachelet was not allowed to travel with any media, just her Chinese government handlers. She later claimed that her meetings in Xinjiang were “unsupervised”, without acknowledging that even her nongovernment interlocutors were handpicked by the authorities and were likely heavily pressured and surveilled.
After Bachelet held a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday, the Chinese government claimed that she had expressed “admiration” for China’s progress on human rights. China’s propaganda machine blasted this claim around the world before Bachelet’s office finally issued a statement saying she was misquoted.
Meanwhile, Bachelet’s long-awaited report on China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang is still missing in action. Charbonneau said she should release it now and speak the truth about the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and its other massive human rights abuses. “Anything less would be an insult to the victims”, he said.
Bachelet’s trip was not just a missed opportunity to speak truth about China’s atrocities. She has undermined her credibility and the overall credibility of the U.N. system on human rights. Beijing has compromised yet another part of the U.N. system, said Christopher Walker, vice president at the National Endowment for Democracy.
“The dynamics surrounding the U.N. human rights commissioner’s visit are part of the larger pattern in which Beijing, through manipulation and intimidation, seeks to shape behaviors and norms in line with authoritarian preferences”, he said in an interview.
Leaders in Beijing are now surely more confident than ever they can commit mass atrocities without fearing significant costs imposed by the international community. When the history books are written about the world’s failure to stop the Uyghur genocide, Bachelet’s trip will go down as one of many shameful episodes.
Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He is the author of the book Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century.