Support for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who is under attack over Xinjiang visit.

Jun 17, 2022
China Human Rights flag barbed wire
For now, we content ourselves with this show of support for the breakthrough success of Bachelet’s HRC mission to China. Image: Pixabay

Michelle Bachelet has announced she will not be seeking a second term as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Former UN rapporteurs, Alfred de Zayas and Richard Falk, are supporting her against the attacks she has received for her visit to Xinjiang in May, which includes unjustified demands for her resignation. Alfred de Zayas and Richard Falk’s words will resonate strongly with readers of Pearls & Irritations.

For years now, human rights groups, Uyghur activist groups and even countries have been asking the United Nations to investigate claims of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Within the constraints of pandemic conditions, China finally granted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, access to Xinjiang in May this year via a ‘closed loop’ tour – a reference to China’s model of isolating people inside a ‘bubble’ in order to contain the spread of COVID-19. This allowed Bachelet to skip the usual 21 days of quarantine upon entering China. Her six-day trip in China included visits to two locations in Xinjiang (Urumqi and Kashgar) where Chinese authorities have been accused of human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic ethnic groups.  Bachelet was clear from the outset that her trip was not an investigation, but rather an opportunity to open up dialogue between her office and the Chinese Government in order to promote, protect and respect human rights. It is anticipated that her report on Xinjiang will be released soon.

Despite channels of communication opening up between Bachelet’s office and the Chinese Government being an achievement worthy of commendation, anything less than an investigation with unfettered access was a cause for uproar amongst supporters of the Uyghur-cause. Politicians of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China suggested Bachelet risked partaking in a Potemkin-style tour organised by Beijing that would damage the credibility of her office. The China Director for Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson, accused Bachelet of showing disdain for the Uyghurs (without explaining her peculiar assertion). Two-hundred-and-thirty anti-China activist groups demanded Bachelet resign from her position. Thirty-seven Xinjiang-focused scholars sent an open letter to Bachelet complaining that she “ignored and even contradicted” the academic consensus amongst the scholars and insisted that she incorporate their work into her report.

It is noted that one of the signatories to the open letter, James Leibold, is a co-author of the “Uyghurs For Sale” report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which is a defence and strategic policy think tank, not a human rights think tank. ASPI is partly funded by the United States Government and military weapons companies. It is also listed on the Attorney-General’s Department’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Public Register because of its receipt of funding from foreign entities to engage in political and governmental influence work in Australia. The “Uyghurs For Sale” report has already been thoroughly discredited for lacking legal and evidentiary substance. Moreover, other signatories to the open letter have also had the credibility of their work challenged, such as Adrian Zenz who is an adviser to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (mentioned above). Thus, in the Xinjiang field, claims of academic consensus does not mean much when legal and academic rigour has been notably missing.

All of the attacks Bachelet has endured these last few weeks has greatly incensed two former UN rapporteurs – Alfred de Zayas and Richard Falk. They published an article in defence of Bachelet the day she announced she was not seeking a second term in office. Rather than paraphrase their article, I have quoted parts of it in full below, as their eloquence and lucidity will no doubt resonate with readers of Pearls & Irritations.

“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 have been selectively deployed as a geopolitical tool, above all to stoke the embers of confrontation so high on the agenda of both the Trump and Biden presidencies.

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.

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 disturbingly politicised approach to human rights missions – and indeed any form of independent assessment – misuses and inflates human rights wrongs as part of a mobilisation of public opinion against the targeted state, and often precedes regime-changing interventions as in Iraq, 2003. Partaking of such an approach would be unworthy of a High Commissioner, UN rapporteur or special envoys, 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 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 the 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.

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, are often funded by the U.S. Government or wealthy right-wing donors, exemplified by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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 demonizes 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 Uyghur 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 [and] mounting their malicious campaign against Michelle Bachelet.

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”

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