BEIJING (Reuters) – The United Nations human rights chief in China said on Saturday her visit was “not an investigation” but urged Beijing to stop “arbitrary” measures targeting the Muslim Uighur minority.
During an online press conference organized at the end of her stay, Michelle Bachelet also claimed that she had “heard” those who criticized her in recent days for not criticizing the Chinese government.
The 70-year-old former Chilean president also claimed that he spoke “frankly” to communist leaders about the campaign currently being waged in Xinjiang (northwest) in the name of fighting terrorism.
This huge Chinese territory has long been the scene of bloody attacks targeting civilians and perpetrated, 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 strict surveillance for several years.
Western studies accuse Beijing of having detained more than one million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim ethnic groups in “re-education camps”, even by imposing “forced labor” or “forced sterilization”. The United States is provoking a “genocide”.
China denounces biased reports and talks about “vocational training centers” aimed at developing job opportunities and cracking down on extremism. She denied any “forced sterilization,” saying only to enforce the national birth control policy.
Several human rights associations and diaspora members accuse Beijing of having caught in the web of its anti-terror campaign a certain number of people who did not commit any crime.
“with no discrimination”
According to them, Uyghurs could have been detained solely on the basis of supposed extremism, because of a very long beard, a suspicious trip abroad, or religious beliefs considered too advanced.
Michelle Bachelet called on China on Saturday to stop “arbitrary and indiscriminate” measures in its campaign against terrorism in Xinjiang, while denouncing “violent acts of extremism”.
The former Chilean president is in the crosshairs of human rights organizations, the United States and Uighurs living abroad.
They accuse him of not criticizing Beijing enough and of allowing himself to engage, with his visit, in a communication process organized by the Chinese Communist Party.
Chinese state media reported this week that it would have praised China’s progress on human rights. These statements were neither denied nor confirmed by United Nations agencies.
“This visit was not an investigation,” the High Commissioner said on Saturday. She defended her stay, claiming that she had access to the people she wanted to meet in Xinjiang “without supervision” by the authorities.
Michelle Bachelet says she has also met in particular with members of civil society and the head of the Chinese Communist Party in the region, which is among the most monitored in the world.
Many Uyghur families say they have no news of their imprisoned relatives.
“This issue and another one that was raised with the authorities,” said Michelle Bachelet, adding that it “raised a lot of issues, very important issues.”
This was the first visit of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 17 years. This comes after difficult negotiations between the United Nations and Beijing.
Michelle Bachelet has traveled to Xinjiang in the regional capital Urumqi and to Kashgar, a city where the Uighur population is especially growing. But no details of his itinerary have been announced.
The former Chilean president says she visited a prison in Kashgar, where she saw prisoners in particular, and described her entry as “fairly open and somewhat transparent”.
She said the Xinjiang government assured her that the network of “vocational training centers” had been “dismantled”. Michelle Bachelet said she visited one of these ancient centers.
The UN delegation, in the name of the epidemiological situation in China, was in a health bubble that kept Bachelet away from the foreign press.
Chinese state media covered his visit to a minimum, reporting only his meetings with President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.