The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights hinted that she could move forward with an investigation into accusations of human rights violations against Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province, even without China’s cooperation.
On Monday, Michele Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva: “I continue to discuss with China modalities for a visit, including meaningful access, to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and hope this can be achieved this year, particularly as reports of serious human rights violations continue to emerge”.
This was the first time that Ms Bachelet had set out an explicit timeline for the visit publicly, but added that she had other options, while she continued to pursue negotiations with China that have been ongoing since 2018.
“In the meantime,” she said, “the office continues to deepen its analysis and assessment of the alleged patterns of human rights violations in Xinjiang”.
In fact, the UN rights chief has the authority to remotely collect testimonies of abuses — without an invitation from the country concerned or a mandate from the council. Such probes have already investigated extra-judicial killings by security forces in Venezuela and the disputed Kashmir region.
Liu Yuyin, a spokesperson for the Chinese mission in Geneva, said that China welcomed a visit by Ms Bachelet, including to the Xinjiang region, but added that the visit should be a “friendly one,” aimed at “promoting exchanges and cooperation rather than making the so-called ‘investigation’ under the presumption of guilt”.
He also said that Ms Bachelet should “stop making erroneous remarks which interfere in China’s sovereignty”.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both issued reports earlier this year that documented practices used against Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province which they say meet the threshold for crimes against humanity.
The reports found that at least one million Uyghurs had been subjected to heinous abuse in the northwestern region, including mass arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, mass surveillance, cultural and religious erasure, family separation, forced labour, sexual violence, and violations of reproductive rights.
China has consistently denied the reports and insists that it is simply running vocational training centres to combat religious extremism.