This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, as it has been a short week with the Pentecost holiday, we’ll jump right into it. This Thursday is a day of historical importance for Switzerland as it joins the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member on a two-year term beginning in 2023. What does it mean for the country’s neutrality? What can it hope to achieve, with the body in crisis because of the war in Ukraine? What can Switzerland, with its long tradition of promoting peace and international cooperation, bring to the Council? There is plenty of great coverage in the Swiss press, starting with Le Temps.
But in The Geneva Observer, we return to a story we have dedicated a fair amount of space to over the last few weeks: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s trip to China and her unwillingness so far to publish her report on forced labor in Xinjiang. Her trip has been judged a complete debacle by human rights activists, NGOs, and Western governments alike; and from conversations we have had here, it is clear that as Beijing praises her visit, Michelle Bachelet’s credibility now hinges on the release of the report. As the Human Rights Council prepares for its 50th session, which will start on June 12, the corridors of the Council are abuzz with the story, almost overshadowing the war in Ukraine.
The pressure on Michelle Bachelet shows no sign of abating. With each criticism it becomes more difficult to imagine that, having failed her biggest test, she will be able to regain not only her credibility as the UN human rights chief but also her reputation as a savvy operator within the UN system. The latest salvo has come in the form of an open letter, published online by scholars from Europe, the US, and Australia, accusing her of having disregarded or contradicted their findings. The criticism is particularly scathing as the academics have sometimes diverged on Beijing’s actions and programs in Xinjiang, without, however, disputing that they amount to repression against the Uyghurs.
Forced labor is also on the agenda of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) annual conference. The Committee on the Application of Standards took up the report prepared by the ILO’s Committee of Experts—just as China has decided to ratify the ILO’s convention on forced labor.
There are traditionally no general debates during the June session of the Human Rights Council. Several reports will be presented, among them one on the situation in Russia and one on Palestine. The G|O’s Jamil Chade went for an advance read of a third, close to home, about the challenges faced today by journalists.
It's all below. As always, thank you for reading us.
MICHELLE BACHELET’S DENTED REPUTATION—AND CONCERNS ABOUT NEW FORCED LABOR PROGRAMS IN CHINA
By Philippe Mottaz
She had repeatedly been warned by activists, NGOs, and governments that traveling to China at Beijing’s invitation was a risk that she should not take: her visit would be instrumentalized by the Chinese; she would never be allowed “unfettered” access to Xinjiang province; she was putting the credibility of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) at risk. Having refused for more than two years to release her office’s long-awaited report on allegations of forced labor and discrimination against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, she would make a mockery of—and undermine—the work of her own staff and of all the organizations which have, over the years, been meticulously documenting the egregious human rights violations committed against the Uyghurs, making it impossible not to conclude, as they did, that she had betrayed them. But Michelle Bachelet dismissively swatted away her critics’ objections and went ahead.
“I was not born yesterday, ambassadors […] I am an experienced woman,” she told a group of more than a hundred of diplomats during a virtual meeting on her first day in China, as reported by the South China Morning Post.
That experience was severely tested—and, for some, put in doubt—during her six-day trip to China, widely seen here as a tragic failure. At the OHCHR, which she leads, the disillusionment is profound, bordering on outrage, insiders tell The G|O. In large part, these feelings were reinforced by what many call her disastrous performance during her concluding press conference. Bachelet insisted that her visit was not an investigation, telling the reporters she had “been unable to assess the full scale” of the infamous system of mass-internment of more than a million Uyghurs in camps that Beijing simply calls vocational and educational centers (VETC) and justifies as part of its response to terrorism and poverty in the region. “The government assured me that the VETC system has been dismantled,” she said, seemingly accepting Beijing’s affirmation at face-value, adding that she had encouraged Beijing to review its counterterrorism policies to bring them into compliance with international human rights standards.
She praised China’s “tremendous achievements” in human rights, pointing to poverty alleviation programs, thus espousing Beijing’s narrative, and overall she failed to clearly condemn the Chinese government’s repression campaign in Xinjiang. “Zeid would never have gone in the first place or said what she said,” a senior Western diplomat told The G|O, referring to Bachelet’s predecessor. “You expect the UN human rights chief to denounce [abuses], to speak truth to power,” and not to appease.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese government was pleased. “Western countries, out of ulterior motives, went to great lengths to disrupt and undercut the High Commissioner’s visit, their plot didn’t succeed,” China’s deputy foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu said as Bachelet was leaving, while a few days later the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian added, “All foreign friends who have visited Xinjiang will come to a just and objective conclusion, like the High Commissioner herself. […] China attaches great importance to the human rights causes of the UN. We are ready to play a bigger role.”
Experts here worry that Bachelet’s global acceptance of Beijing’s narrative about poverty alleviation and her emphasis on economic and social rights to the detriment of individual rights will profoundly weaken the UN human rights system. She has, they say, effectively let the Chinese leadership know that it need not fear any criticism of its behavior from her organization. What is clear is that Bachelet’s personal reputation and the UN’s willingness to hold China to account now both hinge on the release of her office’s long-awaited report.
But China itself may also have concluded that as Western pressure mounts over Beijing’s human rights abuses—the US will start banning all goods from Xinjiang later this month and Germany has recently decided to toughen its own stance—it needs to respond by changing its strategy to deflect the tension. Beijing’s decision to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s convention on forced labor is an indication of the country’s shift as it claims it wants to play a “bigger role” at the UN. Given Beijing’s repeated denunciations of the current multilateral system, this has Western countries worried.
Another illustration of the Chinese leadership’s change in strategy, say human rights defenders, is Beijing’s recent decision to put Ma Xingrui in charge of the Xinjiang region. Widely considered by China watchers as a Chinese Communist Party rising star, Xingrui was until now supervisor of the Shenzhen economic zone.
In a speech in January first reported by Bloomberg, he described his vision for Xinjiang by saying it was crucial to “accelerate the integration of urban and rural development and vigorously develop labor-intensive industries.” Farmers and herdsmen must be able to achieve “stable employment and sustained income growth.” A key part of the new policy calls for investing in a massive job transfer program in which Uyghurs would be moved across the province and the country.
The US and other Western countries, however, are seriously concerned that, when applied to the Uyghurs, such a state-sponsored work program would simply help perpetuate the repression of the Muslim minority and make it more difficult to document. The repression, they say, would continue under the veneer of educational and anti-poverty efforts.
The ILO defines forced labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.”
For Laura Murphy, Professor of Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery at Sheffield Hallam University, quoted by Bloomberg, refusing a government-sponsored labor program in the Uyghur region is not an option: “that is what makes it forced labor—that is not a social program.”
Between the OHCHR and the ILO, the forced-labor issue will continue to rage in Geneva.
THE INTIMIDATION OF JOURNALISTS IN RUSSIA WILL BE DENOUNCED BY THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL—BUT SO WILL THE EU’S DECISION TO BAN RUSSIAN MEDIA
By Jamil Chade, with Philippe Mottaz
A report to be presented at the next session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) will question the decision by the EU to ban Russian media outlets. Written by Irene Khan, the Special Rapporteur for press freedom, the HRC initially requested the report to assess the growing challenges journalists face in the digital age, the scourge of disinformation, and the increasingly physical threats reporters face today. But the war in Ukraine has inserted itself into the conversation, and Khan’s report will now also deal with issues of censorship and limits on the freedom of information.
In early March, in a highly controversial decision, the EU decided to ban Sputnik and RT, formerly Russia Today. It should be noted that while Switzerland agreed to follow the EU’s economic sanctions—a gesture seen as compromising its neutrality—it balked at the Russian media ban. In early May, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen upped the ante by telling EU lawmakers in Strasbourg that a further three state-owned Russian broadcasters—RTR Planeta, Russia 24, and TV Centre—would also be targeted. “They will not be allowed to distribute their content anymore in the European Union, in whatever shape or form, be it on cable, via satellite, on the internet, or via smartphone apps,” she said.
Calling the TV channels “mouthpieces that aggressively amplify Putin’s lies and propaganda,” she justified the EU’s move by saying that the EU “should not give them a stage anymore to spread these lies.”
The extension of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate to examine the Russian situation and her misgivings about Brussels’ media ban have not passed without raising some eyebrows here. It is expected that the EU will take the floor to defend its position.
In her report, Irene Khan addresses the EU position directly: “In late February 2022, the European Commission banned two media outlets owned and controlled by the Russian Federation from broadcasting in the European Union on the grounds that they spread disinformation and propaganda and so constituted a threat to public order and security.” She goes on to say that in her view, “the total ban of a media outlet is a severe restriction of freedom of expression.”
“While international law permits restriction of freedom of expression to protect public order and national security, it requires the measure to be strictly necessary and proportionate. As disinformation can be addressed without banning media outlets, there is concern about the proportionality of the response of the European Union,” she says.
The UN Special Rapporteur is not alone in questioning Brussels’ decision. Last month, Ricardo Gutiérrez, General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), issued a strong statement: “We believe the EU has no right to grant or withdraw broadcasting licenses. Such decisions are of the exclusive competence of the states. In our liberal democracies, independent regulators, never the government, are allowed to manage the allocation of licenses. The EU’s decision is a complete break with these democratic guarantees. For the first time in modern history, Western European governments are banning media,” he said.
Gutiérrez argues that “total closure of a media outlet does not seem to me to be the best way to combat disinformation or propaganda. This act of censorship can have a counterproductive effect on the citizens who follow the banned media. In our opinion, it is always better to counteract the disinformation of propagandist or allegedly propagandist media by exposing their factual errors or bad journalism, demonstrating their lack of financial or operational independence, and highlighting their loyalty to government interests and their disregard for the public interest.”
The EFJ suggested other measures to deal with the issue: increasing support for independent journalism, strengthening the independence of editorial offices, reinforcing the social status of journalists, promoting professional ethics through independent press councils, encouraging media pluralism, promoting media literacy for all, and increasing the transparency of those in power.
“The real antidote to disinformation is not the banning of the media, but the promotion of a vibrant, pluralistic, professional, ethical and viable media ecosystem, totally independent of those in power,” said Gutiérrez.
However, Khan is also concerned about the situation in Russia, where referring to the conflict in Ukraine using the term “war” is considered a crime.
“The ‘fake war news’ law led Russian media outlets to self-censor their reporting on the situation in Ukraine. Some independent outlets closed down or suspended their activities due to the increased restrictions on reporting. Fearing for the safety of their staff, several international media outlets announced their intention to suspend reporting from Moscow or were blocked partially or fully from reporting by the Russian authorities.” She writes that “this total information blackout is one in a series of measures taken by the authorities to restrict media freedom in the Russian Federation.”
Khan’s report states that “any restriction of freedom of expression should adhere strictly to the requirements of legality, necessity, proportionality, and legitimate aim set out in article 19 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and acknowledge the public interest role of journalists.”
Furthermore, “States should refrain from compelling digital companies to restrict or remove journalistic content without judicial due process. As part of transparency reporting, digital companies should inform the public and the media about content restrictions requested by States,” she suggests.
The report concludes that media freedom and the safety of journalists are in dangerous decline in almost every region of the world. The present report to the Human Rights Council is a call for urgent action to reverse that trend. The report has been informed by written contributions from 16 states, 29 civil society organizations—including a consortium of 40 partners, scholars and journalists—and four international organizations, as well as consultations with various stakeholders.
The 50th session of the Human Rights Council will start on June 12.