Ever since the first reports emerged — years ago — that China was detaining Uyghurs in camps across Xinjiang, human rights advocates knew they needed to get the attention of one person in particular. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, one of the few officials who could address the allegations with a mix of neutrality and global authority.
Those human rights groups might have been expected to applaud the news this week that the current U.N. human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, was finally coming to China, including stops in Xinjiang — the first such visit by the top U.N. rights official in nearly two decades. Instead, many see her trip to Xinjiang as China’s latest attempt to thwart a real investigation into rights violations in the region.
“The fear is that it could be used to whitewash the abuses,” said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. Bachelet’s trip was approved with restrictions; China imposed a “closed loop” for covid safety purposes, meaning that Bachelet has had to stick to a preapproved agenda without the “unfettered access” that the U.N. tried to secure.
“This is a visit to the region that is choreographed,” said David Tobin, a lecturer in East Asian studies at the University of Sheffield who specializes in Xinjiang. “It’s a party-state tour.” Bloomberg reported that the commissioner herself told diplomats on a video call on Monday that the trip wasn’t an “investigation” and that setting high expectations could result in disappointment.
The trip follows another disappointment for rights advocates. In December, a U.N. spokesperson said Bachelet’s Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) hoped to publish a long-awaited report assessing the violations in Xinjiang in “a matter of weeks.” The report has yet to be released.
The U.S. and an independent tribunal in the United Kingdom have determined that China’s actions in Xinjiang amount to genocide — “genocide and crimes against humanity,” the State Department said in its assessment. According to testimony from the Uyghur diaspora and extensive research by scholars and journalists, the Chinese government has detained more than a million people in “re-education camps” and prisons, sent children of detainees to state-run boarding schools, limited Uyghur births through forced sterilization and other restrictive birth control policies, and assigned Uyghurs to jobs in a forced labor system. The latest evidence was made public this week, in the leak of thousands of Xinjiang police files. The trove of documents includes photos of more than 2,500 people who have been detained and spreadsheets that help corroborate estimates of the number of detainees across Xinjiang.
All this evidence has left Uyghur advocates frustrated and even betrayed by the lack of action from the United Nations.
“People tend to see the U.N. as this very slow-moving, bureaucratic entity,” said Babur Ilchi, program director at the Campaign for Uyghurs, a D.C.-based advocacy organization. “The issue with that is that when human rights are at stake, especially when atrocities are being committed and a genocide is happening against an entire group of people, we need to be moving faster.”
The U.N.’s slow approach to Xinjiang may reflect its bureaucratic nature, but experts say the delay is “unprecedented” and point to another factor: China’s growing efforts to weaken human rights accountability both within its borders and beyond.
How China has tried to keep Xinjiang out of the U.N. spotlight
Over the past four years, the U.N. has been a forum for debate over the situation in Xinjiang — a debate China has worked hard to stifle.
In 2018, U.N. human rights experts called attention to the abuses for the first time in an official U.N. gathering. Gay McDougall, an American lawyer serving on a U.N. human rights committee within Bachelet’s office, said that Xinjiang had become “something resembling a massive internment camp, shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no-rights zone.” Another expert told the session that more than a million Uyghurs had likely been detained.
These comments garnered global headlines, but Chinese representatives were quick to downplay the issue. “The argument that ‘a million Uyghurs are detained in re-education centers’ is completely untrue,” said Hu Lianhe, then-deputy director-general of China’s United Front Work Department.
James Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University who studies Xinjiang, told Grid that “the very first Chinese reaction to the very first U.N. reaction was to deny, deny, deny.”
When Bachelet, a former president of Chile, came to the U.N. office in 2018, she acknowledged the findings from independent experts of “deeply disturbing allegations of large-scale arbitrary detentions of Uyghurs and other Muslim communities, in so called re-education camps across Xinjiang” and requested access to China.
U.N. special experts and country member states continued to press the issue. In July 2019, 22 countries wrote a letter to Bachelet’s office calling out the abuses in Xinjiang and demanding U.N. access to the region. China responded by gathering more countries — 50 — to push back against the charges. Those countries submitted a letter celebrating China’s “remarkable achievements” in human rights and defending China’s actions in Xinjiang as legitimate counterterrorism measures.
This pattern has repeated itself. Nearly every call for greater scrutiny of Xinjiang has been met by another example of China successfully rallying its partners, largely in the Global South, to sign onto statements of support. At the U.N. “we see very, very quick action, condemnation, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We’ve seen moves to try and get to international courts very, very quickly,” said Tobin. “These are things that were not possible in the case of Xinjiang, due to Chinese influence.”
All the while, Bachelet’s office kept pushing for a trip to Xinjiang, and the Chinese government remained unwilling to meet her terms for open access. Eventually, it appears she decided the trip was still worth taking despite the limitations; her office said only: “The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Monday begins a six-day official mission to China, at the invitation of the Government,” without describing the conditions of the trip or her goals for the visit. The commissioner’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The Chinese government may have also played a role in postponing the release of Bachelet’s report. In December, a U.N. spokesperson said the report had “identified patterns of arbitrary detention and ill-treatment in institutions, coercive labor practices and erosion of social and cultural rights in general.” Sources told the South China Morning Post that Chinese officials had pressed the U.N. not to release the report before the Beijing Olympics in February.
“I can’t think of another situation like this involving the very public stalling of an already completed OHCHR report on an extremely dire human rights situation,” said Andréa Worden, a China human rights advocate and practitioner-instructor at Johns Hopkins University. “I think it’s fair to say such a delay is unprecedented.”
Human rights advocates have also expressed concerns that Bachelet’s visit will dilute her office’s report, given that she is likely seeing a highly curated version of Xinjiang. The process is “making people skeptical that the U.N. is going to be able to actually call a spade a spade in this case,” Millward told Grid.
China’s broader campaign to soften the U.N. mandate on human rights
China’s efforts to limit the U.N.’s involvement in Xinjiang are reflective of a larger push to undermine and reshape human rights work at the U.N.
“Under Xi, the Chinese government does not merely seek to neutralize U.N. human rights mechanisms’ scrutiny of China, it also aspires to neutralize the ability of that system to hold any government accountable for serious human rights violations,” Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, wrote. China has consistently dismissed serious human rights violations in other countries, blocking action from the Human Rights Council to address abuses in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar and other countries.
At the same time, China has set out to redefine the very notion of human rights. China has long opposed the Western vision of individual rights that is the foundation of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s mission. Instead, as Worden wrote in a 2020 essay, it has backed the idea that economic development is a “precondition” for rights. China also “rejects the fundamental principle that human rights are universal”; the official Chinese view is that each country should be able to determine its own notion of human rights.
In recent years, China has tried to implant this definition into new operating procedures for the U.N. itself. China has passed resolutions calling for “mutually beneficial cooperation” as a guiding principle for the Human Rights Council — resolutions that the European Union rejected as “missing the point” of the council’s work. China has also slowly increased its presence in the staffing of the Human Rights Council and the commissioner’s office to expand its influence, according to Worden. This was all made easier by the U.S. exit from the Human Rights Council during the Trump administration, which gave China more room to maneuver.
“They’ve actually succeeded in many ways in bending the U.N. to China’s will,” said Millward. “So one question to many people is whether the U.N. can stand up to this.”
Why Uyghurs and other advocates are still looking to the U.N.
For all the concerns about Bachelet’s visit, and the U.N.’s general inability or unwillingness to join in condemnation of the Chinese record in Xinjiang, many advocates still see Bachelet’s visit and her report — assuming it is finally released — as their best hope for change. And all are in agreement: The need for change is acute.
Despite recent reporting that the police presence on the streets of Xinjiang’s cities has decreased and that some camps have been closed, experts say that likely belies the larger picture. Boots on the ground have been replaced by an increasingly complex surveillance state, and experts told Grid there seems to be a movement to put more people into prisons rather than re-education camps. Meanwhile, the camps are still there. “There have definitely been cases reported of the guard towers and barbed wire on the top of the walls taken down so they look a little bit less like prisons,” Millward said. “But the important thing to remember is that they still exist. … They are a threat that is available, and in the back of anyone’s mind.”
In the absence of any formal U.N. assessment, governments and independent organizations have taken increasingly aggressive action to target the Chinese government for its abuses in Xinjiang. The U.S. and EU imposed extensive sanctions, and the U.S. is about to implement a sweeping law banning the import of any goods made using Uyghur forced labor. These moves haven’t gone unnoticed. The Chinese government has counter-sanctioned U.S. and EU officials, and Chinese state media has promoted boycotts on foreign companies that have spoken out about Uyghur forced labor.
But individual Western sanctions are ultimately limited in their effect. “Government sanctions have been important, but they also run the risk of being seen as partisan as well, which is an accusation that I think the Chinese government uses in deflecting these criticisms,” said Wang.
The U.N.’s judgment would be received differently. Tobin, who testified before the Uyghur Tribunal in the U.K., said the Chinese government dismissed the tribunal as an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy against China, whereas “the party state would be more concerned about statements from the U.N., simply because these would be seen as more neutral, more multilateral, and they couldn’t be dismissed in those kind of racialized terms or in terms of political interference.”
Human rights advocates say that a strong report from the U.N. could also catalyze further government-level actions, including sanctions and trade restrictions in more countries across the globe. Overall, China would face greater pressure to change its policies.
“This [U.N.] report is something that Uyghur rights groups consider very important in making sure that the international community sees exactly what’s happening and commits to action,” said Ilchi. “This report would act as a way to remove these doubts that countries are clinging to avoid having to take action.”
How would China receive a strong U.N. report on Xinjiang? Chinese President Xi Jinping made that clear during a Wednesday video meeting with Bachelet. “When it comes to human rights issues, there is no such thing as a flawless utopia,” Xi said. “Countries do not need patronizing lectures; still less should human rights issues be politicized and used as a tool to apply double standards, or as a pretext to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.