UN human rights agency wracked by internal conflict over Uyghur report
OHCHR staff are believed to have clashed with high-level officials before release of anti-Beijing findings
It was 12 minutes to midnight in Geneva on the last day of UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet’s tenure when her office released a landmark report concluding that the Chinese government had committed “serious human rights violations” in Xinjiang.
The August 31 report described “large-scale” arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the north-western region of China and said Beijing’s actions could constitute “crimes against humanity”. It set the stage for probably intense debate on China’s conduct at the autumn session of the UN’s Human Rights Council, which opened on Monday.
But human rights experts and activists who engaged with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said its working-level staff had to overcome resistance to publishing the report from Bachelet herself, who did not want to alienate China, believing engagement was more likely to improve conditions in Xinjiang, the experts said.
Bachelet, a former Chilean president, was under pressure from Beijing to block publication of the report, which it denounced as “disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces”.
“The office staff were the ones trying to get [the report] out despite all the barriers. Without them, it would not have been released. Bachelet was the gatekeeper, delaying it,” said Rushan Abbas of the Campaign for Uyghurs, who gave evidence to the UN on her sister’s disappearance.
Another activist who spoke to Bachelet’s office said some OHCHR staff wanted the report to be published sooner. “There was a lot of willingness from the team to actually do something right, but the delay was coming from a higher level,” said the activist.
The activists’ accounts highlight Beijing’s growing influence in multilateral organisations, as well as the UN’s difficulty balancing tension between China and other member states.
Asked about the claim that she resisted publication of the report, Bachelet said: “I had pledged to put it out before the end of my mandate and I did so. The report covers serious human rights violations and speaks for itself.”
The OHCHR’s conclusions were a long time coming. News reports of massive abuses in Xinjiang emerged around 2017. In September 2018, Bachelet, in her maiden speech to the Human Rights Council, referred to “deeply disturbing allegations of large-scale arbitrary detentions”, reiterating her predecessor’s request to visit China.
Evidence gathered by the UN’s independent experts was also mounting. In August 2018, UN committee co-rapporteur Gay McDougall referred to “credible reports” that China was treating Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities as “enemies of the state”. Chinese delegates denied the allegations. Months later, independent UN experts wrote to China’s UN delegates concerned over new “de-extremification” regulations that legalised detention centres for Muslim minorities.
As early as May 2019, Beijing invited Bachelet to visit China, including Xinjiang. No UN human rights chief had successfully negotiated a visit since 2005. But one human rights worker who engages with the OHCHR believes this and later invitations were in bad faith.
“The Chinese government would provide the invite, staff would respond then the government would say, ‘Are you sure you want to visit after all?’” the worker said, adding that this delayed the report.
The Chinese said Beijing had “engaged and co-operated with the OHCHR with the utmost sincerity”.
By the end of 2019, OHCHR working-level staff were stepping up research on Xinjiang, according to a human rights expert. In March 2021, Bachelet announced that an independent assessment relating to Xinjiang was needed.
In September 2021, she said the report was being finalised and in December her office announced it would be published within weeks. But in March this year, with work on the report “well advanced”, Bachelet finally reached agreement with Beijing for a visit.
“The visit was crucial for me that we engage with the government and work constructively to try to help effect real change on the ground,” said Bachelet. She finally visited China in May.
“There was general frustration within the OHCHR about the trip, dismay that it even happened and that it was undertaken without guarantees of unimpeded access or improved conditions,” said a person with knowledge of internal conversations.
After her return, Bachelet’s office continued to review the report and Beijing heightened its campaign to bury it. In a joint statement to the Human Rights Council, China and 68 other countries urged Bachelet not to interfere with “Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet-related issues”. Bachelet later confirmed that China and other member states had also directly asked her to drop the report.
In her final press conference six days before her term ended, Bachelet said she had “been under tremendous pressure to publish or not to publish”, but her office was “trying very hard” to release the report. European officials also stepped up a push for her to publish, people involved in the talks said. European nations saw the report as key leverage in efforts to respond to the human rights violations.
“In the UN, China’s influence is massive. They are so powerful there and more sophisticated than, say, the Russians, who are only really able to spoil things. They know how to work the system,” said a senior European diplomat.
The OHCHR mandate is conflicted. Some obligations, such as diplomacy, require working with member states. Others require the high commissioner to speak out on serious rights violations.
After the report was released, Bachelet said dialogue and engagement were about trying to build trust. “The politicisation of these serious human rights issues by some states did not help,” she said. “I appeal to the international community not to instrumentalise serious human rights issues for political ends.”
Marc Limon, executive director of the Universal Rights Group think-tank, said Bachelet had struggled to shift the OHCHR from the “campaigning and condemning” approach of her predecessor, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, towards “engagement and diplomacy”.
China’s envoy to the UN said last Friday the report meant Beijing would not co-operate with the OHCHR. Incoming high commissioner Volker Türk inherits the rift and many in the Uyghur diaspora fear for the families still there.