The UN human rights chief said on Saturday in China that her visit was “not an investigation”, but urged Beijing to stop “arbitrary” measures targeting the Muslim Uyghur minority.
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During an online press conference organized at the end of her stay, Michelle Bachelet also claimed to have “heard” those who, in recent days, criticized her for her lack of criticism of the Chinese government.
The 70-year-old former Chilean president also claimed to have spoken with “candor” to communist leaders about the campaign currently being waged in Xinjiang (northwest) in the name of anti-terrorism.
This huge Chinese territory has long been the scene of bloody attacks targeting civilians and committed, according to the authorities, by Uyghur separatists and Islamists – the main ethnic group in the region.
Xinjiang, where 26 million people live, has been under draconian surveillance for several years.
Western studies accuse Beijing of having interned more than a million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim ethnic groups in “re-education camps”, even of imposing “forced labor” or “forced sterilizations”. The United States evokes a “genocide”.
China denounces biased reports and speaks of “vocational training centers” intended to develop employment and eradicate extremism. She denies any “forced sterilization”, saying only to apply the national birth control policy.
Several associations for the defense of human rights and members of the diaspora accuse Beijing of having caught in the mesh of its anti-terrorist campaign a certain number of people who have not committed any crime.
According to them, Uyghurs would have been interned on the sole basis of supposed extremism, because of a beard that was too long, a suspicious trip abroad or religious beliefs deemed too advanced.
Michelle Bachelet called on China on Saturday to stop the “arbitrary and indiscriminate” measures of its anti-terrorist campaign in Xinjiang, while denouncing “violent acts of extremism”.
The former Chilean president is in the crosshairs of human rights organizations, the United States and Uyghurs based abroad.
They accuse him of not criticizing Beijing enough and of letting himself be drawn, with his visit, into a communication operation orchestrated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Chinese state media reported this week that she would have praised China’s progress in human rights. The UN services have neither denied nor confirmed these remarks.
“This visit was not an investigation,” recalled the High Commissioner on Saturday. She defended her stay, claiming to have been able to have with the people she wanted to meet in Xinjiang an “unsupervised” access by the authorities.
Michelle Bachelet says she also notably met with members of civil society and the leader of the CCP in the region, which is among the most monitored territories in the world.
Many Uyghur families say they have no news of their imprisoned relatives.
“This issue and others have been raised with the authorities,” Michelle Bachelet said, adding that she had “raised a lot of cases, very important cases.”
This visit was the first by a High Commissioner for Human Rights in 17 years. It follows tough negotiations between the United Nations and Beijing.
Michelle Bachelet traveled to Xinjiang in the regional capital Urumqi and to Kashgar, a city where the Uighur population is particularly large. But no details of his itinerary have been made public.
The former Chilean president says she visited a prison in Kashgar, where she saw prisoners in particular, describing her access as “fairly open, fairly transparent”.
The Xinjiang government, she said, assured her that the network of “vocational training centers” had been “dismantled”. Michelle Bachelet said she visited one of these old centers.
The UN delegation, in the name of the epidemic situation in China, was in a health bubble which kept Ms. Bachelet away from the foreign press.
Chinese state media covered his visit minimally, reporting only his meetings with President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.