Michelle Bachelet’s Chinese Puzzle

There was Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the director of the World Health Organization was accused of being too close to Beijing. After a visit to Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in January 2020, he praised China for its “speed”, “efficiency” and “transparency”. Today, another UN agency official is in the spotlight: Michelle Bachelet.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights raises questions about her attitude deemed too conciliatory vis-à-vis Beijing. If she willingly intervenes on CNN to speak about Ukraine, she is less verbose when it comes to China. Friday, on the Place des Nations in Geneva, Uighurs urged her to consult them before her visit to China or even to postpone it if the conditions of unhindered access are not guaranteed to her.

Since taking office in 2018, she has not issued a single press release on Xinjiang. She was content with just one on Hong Kong in June 2020. A report on Xinjiang is sleeping in the drawers of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) without anyone knowing why, arousing the ire of Human rights NGOs and several diplomatic missions. And in a few days, the high commissioner undertakes a very controversial visit to China, the first for a high commissioner for human rights since Louise Arbor in 2005. A high political risk when it is still not known whether the he ex-president of Chile wishes to embrace a second term at the head of the OHCHR from September 1st.

Read also: Xinjiang, thorn in the side of Michelle Bachelet

Crimes against humanity

Civil society, NGOs and the media began to report, from the beginning of 2018, on the serious human rights violations in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, where a large Uighur minority resides. NGOs as well as the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination speak of more than a million people detained in “re-education” camps. In a 160-page report published in June 2021, Amnesty International writes: “Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim-majority ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region face widespread imprisonment, torture and persecution. orchestrated by the state, which amount to crimes against humanity.” The report adds: “The Chinese authorities have set up one of the most sophisticated surveillance systems in the world and a vast network of thousands of sinister “transformation through education” centers – in reality, camps. internment – ​​all over Xinjiang. In these camps, […] every aspect of daily life is regulated, the aim being to forcibly build a secular and homogeneous nation and to inculcate the ideals of the Communist Party.”

With such a backdrop, Michelle Bachelet is heading for a perilous journey, from May 22 to 29. The operation questions the conditions under which it will take place. Some fear a “Potemkin” visit where the reality of human rights would be masked. An “advanced” team of five people has already been on site since April 24. She had to come out of quarantine on May 15 and only has a few days in the field to prepare for the visit. The scouting team is based in Guangzhou (Canton), a strange choice while the visit of the high commissioner must take place in Xinjiang, more than 4000 kilometers away. According to a spokesperson for the High Commission, the team must travel to this region once the quarantine is over: “This is to ensure ‘meaningful’ access so that OHCHR best understands the situation of rights in the country and engages in discussions on issues of importance with a wide range of interlocutors, including senior government officials and civil society.” According to the spokesperson, Michelle Bachelet will not have to undergo quarantine. But we can imagine that those who meet her will not escape it.

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However, these words do not reassure those who fear that the visit is “friendly” and that it only meets Beijing’s criteria. Questions abound: Will Michelle Bachelet have access to everyone she wants to meet? Will she be able to see, without the supervision of government officials, Uighurs who have been interned? Will she address the issues of Hong Kong and Tibet? With regard to these conditions, “we generally do not go into details about the terms of reference”, notes the spokesperson for the OHCHR. The team is still working on the final program for the visit.

Radioactive Report

However, more than 200 NGOs warn: it is necessary “to respect the minimum standards for such a visit to be credible […] in order to prevent the Chinese government from manipulating it.” If it were to go wrong, the displacement risks “empowering the abusers and not their victims. […] Michelle Bachelet should be able to display a balance sheet showing that the high commissioner stood up to Beijing and that she did not disappoint those who suffer” from the Xi Jinping regime.

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Raphaël Viana, in charge of the Asia program with the NGO International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) in Geneva, does not believe that this trip will produce convincing results. Philip Alston was UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and visited China for nine days in 2016. He had warned the Chinese authorities of his desire to meet academics. “None of these meetings could have taken place, he told Reuters, and the message I had received from the people I had contacted was that they had been advised to go on vacation at this time. the.” Michelle Bachelet is surprised that we draw hasty conclusions: “I ask you for patience and your support and to evaluate the visit once it has taken place rather than discredit it straight away.”

The visit to China cannot be dissociated from the report that the OHCHR produced and, for the time being, refused to publish. Raphaël Viana is surprised: “For the past three years, the High Commissioner has been silent on the serious violations of rights in China. However, she has spoken out on many crises around the world. But China is the big exception.” Michelle Bachelet, however, pinned Paris on the police violence during the demonstrations of the Yellow Vests as well as the serious racial abuses in connection with the death of the African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The High Commissioner refutes these accusations and tells the Weather: “Where we think our voice can make a difference, we say it loud and clear. We have done this with the five permanent members of the Security Council and with other states.” Michelle Bachelet adds: “The High Commission has addressed human rights issues relating to China, including Xinjiang and Hong Kong, publicly and privately. We have done this directly with the authorities, with civil society but also through public diplomacy, speeches, press releases, spokesperson briefings, social media and responses to journalists. During my visit to China later this month, I look forward to frankly and openly raising these issues with the authorities and other actors.”

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Some diplomats have sometimes criticized the very muscular strategy of Michelle Bachelet’s predecessor, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, arguing that it was attacking the States. With Michelle Bachelet, “we praised private diplomacy. But the two are complementary, notes Raphaël Viana. There, one wonders about the merits of the private diplomacy of the high commissioner. In his view, it is imperative not to leave China with a feeling of impunity: “Beijing engages all its diplomatic weight to avoid any criticism in terms of human rights, a dynamic rarely seen with such intensity at the Human Rights Council. man (HRC). Fifty special rapporteurs say it: it is time for the HRC to take the China problem in hand.”

The OHCHR report on Xinjiang has been ready since August 2021. It is the result of work undertaken in 2020 which would take up many of the conclusions of the investigations carried out by various NGOs and the Uighur Tribunal, a body of experts and lawyers from the human rights. But the document would be more nuanced. Maybe that’s the problem. It is said of Michelle Bachelet that she does not wish to hear these NGOs, even less the muscular grievances formulated by the United States. The document should have been published in the fall, then in January. And then nothing. Many diplomatic missions and NGOs are fuming. Nothing works. The visit to China makes its publication even less likely. The document becomes radioactive: published, it would put the UN seal on the finding of serious human rights violations in Xinjiang.

Raphaël Viana is not optimistic: “There is a lack of coherence and political courage. Michelle Bachelet’s visit risks compromising the publication of the report. If the visit is catastrophic and the report does not come out, the credibility and integrity of the High Commission will be undermined.” Here again, the Chilean responds: “My team and I hope, during my visit, to discuss and raise, with the government of China, a series of problems relating to human rights in China, including in the Uighur autonomous region of Xinjiang. But as we do with any report from the High Commission, China, as a concerned state, will be provided with the report when it is ready to express the government’s views and share additional information. The Chilean clarifies that “many actors and governments have accused us of being biased and have exerted pressure on us through various means. But the High Commission applies strict parameters and methodology […]. I am not afraid of compromising the independence of the High Commission.”

Economic rights

The relationship between Beijing and Michelle Bachelet is finally marked by another factor. China, which has still not ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, is fully committed to economic, social and cultural rights. She frequently recalls that she lifted nearly 800 million people out of poverty. With the High Commissioner, she can agree. The Chilean also favors economic, social and cultural rights. A perfectly legitimate position, but which questions the safeguards that Michelle Bachelet intends to put in place to also defend civil and political rights. A diplomat does not say he is surprised: “We are witnessing a reframing compared to Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who very openly denounced the violations of civil and political rights in China. This reframing would come directly from the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres. Michelle Bachelet does not accept the accusation: “Separating civil and political rights from economic, social and cultural rights is a false dichotomy. All these rights are closely linked and interdependent. And no category of rights exists or has any real meaning without respect for the other category of rights. This has been the vision of the High Commission for decades and it is my vision based on my experience as a human rights defender, doctor, Minister of Health and Defense and finally as President of Chile for two terms. Gossips also believe that at the head of the OHCHR, she still acts like the president of Chile that she was: without much transparency, and with a very limited close guard.

If Michelle Bachelet does not necessarily feel on the same wavelength as Westerners, it is also because of her personal history. Daughter of an Air Force general who was tortured by the dictatorship of General Pinochet, she would have reason to resent the United States, which contributed to the overthrow of President Salvador Allende. She says it herself: “As a South American, I am sensitive to the problems relating to this region of the world, but also to other countries of the South.”

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