Alfred de Zayas and Richard Falk: The unjustified criticism of High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s visit to Xinjiang.Jun 18, 2022
An artificial atmosphere of hostility, sustained by geopolitical agendas, double standards, fake news and skewed narratives has made it difficult to tackle specific human rights problems particularly in Xinjiang.
As former UN rapporteurs we are committed to the promotion and protection of human rights in all corners of the world, including China. Progress can only be achieved on the basis on good faith implementation of the UN Charter and UN human rights treaties, and requires patience, perseverance, and international solidarity.
An artificial atmosphere of hostility, sustained by geopolitical agendas, double standards, fake news and skewed narratives has made it difficult to tackle specific human rights problems and advance on the progressive enjoyment of human rights in larger freedom. Human rights allegations were being selectively deployed as a geopolitical tool, above all to stoke the embers of confrontation that was high on the agenda of both the Trump and Biden presidencies.
Already in April 2021, in an essay on China published in Counterpunch, we noted that spreading propaganda about a supposed “genocide” in Xinjiang was highly irresponsible and would poison relations between the US and China besides weakening the human rights discourse. We then warned that such hyperbolic narratives would make it more difficult to increase respect human rights concerns in other more appropriate settings. A similar essay was published by Professors Jeffrey Sachs and William Schabas in Project Syndicate. In a variety of fora we have since repeatedly called for more professionalism on the part of politicians, journalists and human rights activists in addressing human rights issues, which are always delicate matters as infringing upon sovereign rights unless firmly grounded, and thus perverted into serving the ends of coercive diplomacy and even war-mongering.
The invitation by the Chinese government to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to come and see for herself, and the invitation to UN rapporteurs were very positive signs, and rarely has a government under scrutiny been so forthcoming. It represents an important show of confidence by China and its leadership in its own willingness to uphold international norms and to trust in the impartiality of the HRC and its High Commissioner. China should have been applauded along with Ms. Michelle Bachelet instead of being subjected to a barrage of geopolitically motivated hostile propaganda. She accepted the invitation some months ago, dispatching in April the High Commissioner an advance-team of five OHCHR professionals to prepare her mission.
While many welcomed China’s opening to the United Nations, some politicians who evidently are not interested in objective assessments but a priori already have their standard condemnation of China, criticised Bachelet’s intention to visit China and advised her not to go. This is not unlike the experience of the UN independent expert on international order, who prior to his mission to Venezuela in November/December 2017 (the first in 21 years) received letters and emails from some NGOs asking him not to go, because, of course, everybody already knew that the Venezuelan government was corrupt and incompetent and that the only function of a rapporteur would be to demand “regime change”. See the report of the IE to the Human Rights Council. This is a disturbingly politicised approach to human rights missions – and indeed any form of independent assessment – and misuses and inflates human rights wrongs as part of a mobilisation of public opinion against the targeted state, and often preceded regime-changing interventions as in Iraq, 2003. Partaking of such an approach would be unworthy of a High Commissioner, UN rapporteur or special envoy, and should not be indulged, as it sometimes is, by human rights NGOs.
At the end of her six-day mission to China, Bachelet issued a highly informative, comprehensive, and nuanced end-of-mission statement in Guangzhou on 28 May 2022 that constitutes the most trustworthy assessment of China’s human rights record that is now available.
To our dismay, instead of hailing the breakthrough achieved by Michelle Bachelet in opening the door to OHCHR monitoring and cooperation, a number of academics and NGOs criticised the High Commissioner’s mission to China, condemning it as a “failed visit” and some even calling for her resignation. We write as UN former rapporteurs who recognise the ground-breaking nature of Bachelet’s visit, strongly rejecting such unjustifiable criticism and consider that impressive progress has been achieved by this highly professional mission to China, a first to China in 17 years by a UN High Commissioner. We note with satisfaction that Bachelet returned to Geneva with positive prospects for future cooperation, including the formalisation of a mechanism for future activities to strengthen the observance of human rights in China. A likely first step that will be to arrange future visits by the High Commissioner of the HRC, by UN rapporteurs and working groups, and even by other UN agencies such as ILO, WHO and UNHCR. We would take note of the fact that no comparable gesture of cooperation with UN on human rights matters has been exhibited by China’s leading adversary, the United States.
It appears that some critics have misunderstood the High Commissioner’s mandate pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 48/141, and disregard the over-all purpose of the Human Rights Council, which is to assist countries in improving their human rights performance. Progress in human rights terms is not achieved by confrontational policies, by “naming and shaming” or by insulting governments, but rather by patient investigation of the root causes of problems, rigorous compilation of evidence, balanced evaluation of the facts in their proper context, due consideration of all views by governments, civil society, non-governmental organisations, academics and victims. That was precisely the focus of the High Commissioner’s mission to China.
Pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 48/141, High Commissioners:
“Function within the framework of the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, other international instruments of human rights and international law, including the obligations, within this framework, to respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and domestic jurisdiction of States and to promote the universal respect for and observance of all human rights, in the recognition that, in the framework of the purposes and principles of the Charter, the promotion and protection of all human rights is a legitimate concern of the international community;
“Among the duties of every High Commissioner are
“To provide… advisory services and technical and financial assistance, at the request of the State concerned and, where appropriate, the regional human rights organisations, with a view to supporting actions and programmes in the field of human rights;
To engage in a dialogue with all Governments in the implementation of his/her mandate…”
The end of mission statement made by Michelle Bachelet demonstrates she diligently listened to the views and grievance of all parties, pursuant to the rule “listen to all sides” — audiatur et altera pars. Her mission encompassed a wide range of issues bearing on civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, including the rule of law, the administration of justice, the death penalty, civil society participation in the political processes, freedom of expression, human rights defenders, climate change, world peace, the sustainable development goals, and others.
With regard to the allegations concerning grave human rights violations in Xinjiang, the mission statement notes:
“In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, I have raised questions and concerns about the application of counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation measures and their broad application – particularly their impact on the rights of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities. While I am unable to assess the full scale of the Vocational Education and Training Centres, I raised with the Government the lack of independent judicial oversight of the operation of the program, the reliance by law enforcement officials on 15 indicators to determine tendencies towards violent extremism, allegations of the use of force and ill treatment in institutions, and reports of unduly severe restrictions on legitimate religious practices. During my visit, the Government assured me that the VETC system has been dismantled. I encouraged the Government to undertake a review of all counter terrorism and deradicalisation policies to ensure they fully comply with international human rights standards, and in particular that they are not applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory way.
Before coming to China, I heard from some Uyghur families now living abroad who have lost contact with their loved ones. In my discussions with the authorities, I appealed to them to take measures to provide information to families as a matter of priority.”
With regard to Tibet Bachelet observed:
“it is important the linguistic, religious and cultural identity of Tibetans be protected, and that Tibetan people are allowed to participate fully and freely in decisions about their religious life and for dialogue to take place. I discussed education policies in the Tibet Autonomous Region and stressed the importance of children learning in their own language and culture in the setting of their families or communities.”
With regard to Hong Kong she noted:
“Hong Kong has long been respected as a centre for human rights and independent media in the region. It is important that the Government there do all it can to nurture – and not stifle – the tremendous potential for civil society and academics in Hong Kong to contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights in the HKSAR and beyond. The arrests of lawyers, activists, journalists and others under the National Security Law are deeply worrying. Hong Kong is due to be reviewed by the UN Human Rights Committee in July, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
The mission must be seen as the beginning of a process that will hopefully contribute to the gradual improvement of the human rights situation in China. This must be welcomed by all governments, civil society and professionally responsible NGOs. In this regard we are appalled by those private sector organisations (NGOs and think tanks) proclaiming a commitment to human rights yet in their operations, often funded by the U.S. Government or wealthy right-wing donors, exemplified by the National Endowment for Democracy.
Among the many successes of the Bachelet mission, we highlight arrangements calling for further cooperation between OHCHR and China. In the words of the report: “We also agreed to establish a working group to facilitate substantive exchanges and cooperation between my Office and the Government through meetings in Beijing and in Geneva, as well as virtual meetings. This working group will organise a series of follow-up discussions about specific thematic areas, including but not limited to development, poverty alleviation and human rights, rights of minorities, business and human rights, counter-terrorism and human rights, digital space and human rights, judicial and legal protection and human rights, as well as other issues raised by either side.
This will allow for structured engagement of my Office with China on a number of human rights issues. This is especially important as my Office does not have a country presence. The working group will also provide a space for us to bring to attention of the Government a number of specific matters of concern. The Government has also stated that it will invite senior officials from the Office to visit China in the future.”
By any objective standard, such results represent a considerable success, which many countries in the West do not begin to match. As we know, the United States has not allowed the UN to visit Guantanamo in more than 21 years. Similarly, Israel does not allow UN rapporteurs to enter the territory in order to conduct independent fact-finding on the ground in territory seized during the 1967 War, and subjected to harsh military administration for more than half a century with no end in sight. Indeed, the silence of those most shrilly complaining about China’s human rights violations about the abundantly documented findings of Israel as guilty of apartheid is what should be calling for media criticism and governmental reaction, but for opposite reasons to the push against China, we note this failure to respond to the grossest of human rights violations not only in Israel, but in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and a host of others..
What strikes us as independent observers, is the intellectual dishonesty of the mainstream media platforms –as abetted by those academics and NGOs that selectively view human rights through a geopolitical optic that demonises some situations while exempting others more severe from scrutiny. The chorus of Sinophobia and “hate speech, itself in contravention of article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, manifests opportunism and intellectual dishonesty, because the same NGOs turn a blind eye toward other geopolitically inconvenient transgressions.
It is worth contrasting the use of the term “genocide” by the United States and its friends to refer to the situation in Xinjiang with other instances, far better documented, of genocide in the world. Such inflammatory language would have to be backed up by verifiable evidence, but it is not. Even the one-sided Uyghur Tribunal in London refrained making a finding on genocide with regard to killings or population transfers. Whoever has followed developments around the Uygur tribunal and the dis-information in the corporate media realises that the tribunal was pre-determined to reach certain conclusions, namely genocide and that the “trial” was conducted on the basis of a “presumption of guilt.” Therefore, it would not deserve our attention, except that it has functioned as a tool of dangerous hostile propaganda by which the “narrative managers” in the corporate media are now channelling in mounting their malicious campaign against Michelle Bachelet.
The judgment as rendered is not as sensationalist and inflammatory as the tribunal convenors and Sinophobic media hoped for., The Tribunal reviewed the five acts of genocide listed in article 2 of the 1948 Genocide Convention, and rejected four of them, observing that there is no evidence of genocidal intent. The judgment of the Tribunal does go on to examine the fourth listed criterion of genocide–imposing measures on a racially distinct group to prevent reproduction and this is deemed sufficient to uphold the allegation of genocide. There is really no relevant antecedents to such a finding. The Uygur case is a peculiar candidate for such a momentous finding. The clear purpose of the Chinese measures is not and never was to “destroy in whole or in part” the Uygur group by suppression of births, but reflects a general population-control strategy in a country that already has 1.4 billion human beings, and has long experimented with various kinds of population control and stabilisation policies and practices..
Considering the Sinophobic articles that have been published in the Western press, it is remarkable how the media keeps silent about the highly credible documentation of the Apartheid allegations against Israel and gross human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In particular, the media downplays the responsibility of the United States and Saudi Arabia for the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today – Yemen. The use and abuse of human rights as a geopolitical tool is so flagrant that it is worthy of an investigation by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and by dedicated members of the global human rights community.
For now, we content ourselves with this show of support for the breakthrough success of Bachelet’s HRC mission to China, and decry those who would distort such an achievement so as to continue with their efforts to rationalise confronting China coercively. Opportunism in relation to human rights is not a path to peace and justice in our tormented world, which depends on cooperation and multilateralism, and rejects efforts to split the world into a self-righteous struggle between good and evil.
Alfred de Zayas is a lawyer, writer, historian, expert in the field of human rights and international law and retired high-ranking United Nations official. Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.