Europe

Michelle Bachelet should not go to Xinjiang on Chinese government terms

When Michelle Bachelet became the world’s top human rights official in 2018, she expressed deep concern about the human rights catastrophe in the Xinjiang region of China. Four years later, many describe what is happening there as a genocide, targeting millions with a wide range of destructive measures.

Ever since 2018, the UN has been demanding that its human rights specialists be allowed to visit Xinjiang, without Chinese government restrictions. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently said negotiations are ongoing

But such a visit would inevitably be stage-managed by the Chinese authorities, the perpetrators. That presents a grave risk of tarnishing the prestige and reputation of the UN and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

There is nothing to indicate that the Chinese authorities would respect Bachelet’s high office and provide real access. The regime has publicly insisted that their Xinjiang policies are “completely correct,” and they will do everything in their power to pre-stage and control every detail of the itinerary. 

It’s what they do. And it’s what they have already been doing in the Uyghur region, especially after they could no longer deny the concentration camps, a key tool of the genocide. In late 2018, the camps became undeniable because of the thorough documentation abroad, by way of satellite imagery, Chinese state documents, numerous victim testimonies, and more. 

To try to counter this setback the regime followed its usual path: They constructed an alternate-reality set of Potemkin “camps” and staffed them with select detainees coerced to parrot the party line, and to sing and dance, like in a movie, for “friendly” journalists and others who go along with these charades for their own reasons. The real camps, for which we have the coordinates and many details, are off-limits.

The authorities would similarly block access to the many cultural and religious monuments, graveyards, and so on that have been brutally bulldozed as part of an overall program intending to destroy indigenous, non-Han Chinese, identities by razing their cultural foundations. 

Similarly, the authorities will prevent any on-site insight into forced labor schemes, or the brutal treatment of mass-sterilized women and mass-confiscated children — some of the direct violations of the UN Genocide Convention. It’s why the regional government shut down its website as soon as its demographic data was analysed abroad. 

What of the hundreds of prominent Uyghur and Kazakh intellectuals, artists and cultural heroes disappeared without a trace, probably sent into extra-legal detention like so many others? If the UN asks to see them, what will the Chinese government do? They gave us a preview when they recently refused the European Union ambassadors’ Xinjiang visit because the EU asked for access to Ilham Tohti, the celebrated Uyghur scholar who is the recipient of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, but was jailed for life in 2015. 

Another preview: The New York Times was offered to meet a camp “graduate.” He was presented to them in a Urumqi apartment, complete with a family — but when the journalists later returned to check, it seemed obvious that no one actually lived there. The man and his family could not be relocated

The same pattern is on open display in the forced confessions on Chinese state TV, the pre-trial parading of victims made to denounce and humiliate themselves — including European Union citizens like Gui Minhai

Ilham Tohti’s daughter, Jewher Ilham, accepted the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on behalf of her jailed father. Tohti is a Uyghur economist serving a life sentence in a Chinese labor camp. He is a leading human rights advocate and a vocal proponent for the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China. FLICKR

Why does Chinese TV keep broadcasting such things even after its own global channels have been convicted and fined for grave violations of journalistic ethics and suspended in several countries?  It is only because this is the modus operandi of the current Chinese Communist regime. Only the master’s voice is allowed, and when necessary, it is imposed by force, to be parroted on pain of severe punishment. 

It’s the same with the recent wave of coerced videos of “happy Uyghurs” that the same Chinese TV propaganda operatives are currently busy churning out. No reasonable person can believe these aren’t orchestrated, too. 

This will inevitably be the same for every single person arranged to meet with a UN delegation to Xinjiang. They would have no freedom to speak their mind, and if they broke this taboo it would risk their lives. 

Bachelet is a former political prisoner of the military dictatorship in Chile, her home country. She knows that autocrats will say and do anything to cover up their crimes. She would also know that participating in such spectacles, such as attending interviews with coerced victims, carries profound ethical risks for the UN and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, too, as the world’s conscience. 

Instead of insisting on a futile visit, which cannot conceivably happen other than as a fake spectacle, the United Nations should initiate a formal probe based on the mountains of irrefutable evidence that is already available to us. There are precedents for proceeding in this way when offending UN member states refuse meaningful access. 

I’m a Swedish scholar who’s been engaged in Chinese studies for over 40 years. I have been watching how the current genocide is creating lasting generational trauma and profound damage not just to the Uyghurs, but also to the Chinese nation, to the UN, and to our entire world. The future process of obtaining justice and compensation for the millions of victims will take a long time, as will the reconstruction of our international justice system.  

Uyghur women hold posters reading ‘Stop Genocide and Free Eastern Turkestan’ during a gathering in Paris, near the Chinese embassy, against the Chinese Communist Party’s abuse of the Muslim Uyghur community in Xinjiang province. EPA-EFE//CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON

I’m sure that the leaders of the EU, and countries such as France and Germany, meant well when they repeatedly insisted on a Xinjiang inspection under UN auspices. But these demands now look hollow, pointless, and counterproductive. They allow the Chinese regime to continue stalling while proceeding with the atrocities. Furthermore, they give a false impression that we don’t have enough evidence — which we do

It is time to take real actions that can force the Chinese Communist regime to halt the genocide. One of the first steps must be to scrap the demands for on-site inspections and instead proceed with an expeditious international investigation under Bachelet’s supervision — regardless of what the Chinese genocidaires say. 

As the late Kofi Annan argued, “We have little hope of preventing genocide, or reassuring those who live in fear of its recurrence, if people who have committed this most heinous of crimes are left at large and not held to account.” 

And, as Gambia’s Justice Minister Aboubacarr Tambadou suggested, who is currently prosecuting Myanmar in The Hague for its genocidal campaign against its Rohingya population, ‘If not us, then who?’



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