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UN Human Rights chief will make first visit to China since 2005

GENEVA – Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations’ top human rights official, will visit China next week, including in the country’s troubled western region of Xinjiang, in a trip that activists Human rights activists say there is a significant risk to the reputation 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 discussions with Beijing to make arrangements. But there are only sketchy details of what she will do and hope to achieve in China, which is under fire in the West for 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, which begins Monday, will include visits to the southern city of Guangzhou, where she will gave lectures at a local university and went to the cities of Urumqi and Kashgar. in Xinjiang. It said she would meet representatives of civil society groups and business leaders and academics in Xinjiang.

The statement did not include any explanation for the purpose of the visit or information about who she would meet from the Chinese government. Her office had previously said that she would not go to Beijing but would speak with senior members of the government.

Visits by United Nations human rights chiefs often give them the opportunity to look at human rights conditions from the outset, talk to activists and victims of abuse, and directly continue to raise the issue 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 top leader, on activists, lawyers, and activists. and media, and draconian measures were taken against the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang.

Academic researchers calculate that Chinese authorities have detained around a million people in camps and forced residents of the region to Orwellian-level surveillance and control over every detail of life, including even names given to children.

China has denied accusations of politically motivated lies and slander about policies that have lifted millions out of poverty while eradicating Islamic extremism. Human rights groups have called Beijing’s actions a crime against humanity, and the United States has called China’s actions genocide.

Ms. Bachelet’s approach to solving these problems is largely unknown. Officials said she hoped to be able to hold talks with leaders on a variety of issues and “build cohesion” between her office and the Chinese government.

A progressive team of five arrived in China on April 25 to prepare the ground for a visit her office insists must be “meaningful with unattended access” to a wide range of representatives and site of civil society.

But China’s sensitivity to criticism, its record of retaliation against activists, and China’s pervasive surveillance capabilities do not appear to leave much room for meeting those criteria.

Chinese officials have bluntly said that the visit “in no way” becomes a “so-called investigation”, insisting that Beijing is only open to a “friendship visit” to “promote exchanges” and cooperation” between the Chinese authorities and the United Nations. human rights office.

In the absence of greater clarity on the purpose of her visit, human rights groups have only used her previous remarks on China as a basis for assessing what her visit might produce. .

Raphael David of the International Service for Human Rights, a Geneva-based NGO, says these precedents don’t give human rights groups confidence.

Bachelet has spoken out against abuse in many countries, condemning racism in the US, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, coups in Myanmar and Sudan, and a host of other issues. Just this month, she has issued statements on developments in Afghanistan, Haiti, Mexico, Israel and the Occupied West Bank, and Sri Lanka.

On the Chinese side, Ms. Bachelet has been quiet 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 its treatment of the Uighur minority there has 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 also accuse China of suppressing religious and language rights, among other things, in Tibet.

Human rights groups say her prudence could come at a heavy cost by allowing leaders in Beijing to avoid any public criticism of their human rights record and consider her visit Ms. Bachelet is proof of China’s cooperation with the United Nations.

Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch, said Ms Bachelet’s visit represented “an extraordinary test of the resilience of the entire UN human rights system”. “If a permanent member of the Security Council committing crimes against humanity is exonerated by this visit, the whole world needs to be appalled.”

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