“Michelle Bachelet betrayed us,” World Uyghur’s Congress President tells the G|O as the UN human rights chief visits China

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is in China. She left on Sunday (May 22) and is expected back on Saturday, May 28. It is a high-risk trip, highly controversial from the start. The publication on Tuesday (May 24) of the ’Xinjiang Police Files’, adding to the existing body of evidence documenting the extent of Beijing’s immense surveillance and repression in the Xinjiang province, will make it even more difficult for her to counter criticism that she is playing with the OHCHR’s credibility by having agreed to travel to China in the first place, by refusing, so far, to release her office's own report in human rights violations in China, and by remaining mostly silent on the Uyghurs’ issue since the beginning of her tenure in 2019.

Geneva is the smallest of the global cities. It is, in fact, claustrophobically microscopic. Meet anyone from the OHCHR today on the formal or social circuit in Geneva and they tense up when you broach the subject of China. Members of Bachelet’s inner circle become immediately defensive; others confide that the group operates in quasi-isolation. Sources inside the OHCHR tell of the frustration of the report’s authors at Bachelet’s lack of engagement, until very recently, with their work. “OHCHR is not a happy place today. Anybody who tells you the contrary is lying,” a long-time human rights defender with a vast network of contacts within the organization tells The G|O.

Outside the organization, Bachelet’s silence about the vastly documented atrocities against the Uyghurs has many puzzled and angered; she has been swift in denouncing other serious violations elsewhere. But it is her persistent refusal to release her office’s long-awaited report on Xinjiang that has profoundly angered her critics, who claim she is “soft” on China. In June of last year, pushing his country’s line on the question, Lui Yuyin, spokesman for China's mission to the UN in Geneva, insisted that her visit, at the invitation of Beijing, should be “friendly,” and “aimed at promoting cooperation rather than conducting “a so-called investigation under the presumption of guilt.” The terms of her current visit—hammered out between the Chinese government and the OHCHR—are secret. The High Commissioner’s critics say it is difficult to believe that she would have been granted “unfettered” access to what the West considers detention camps—where, according to the US, “genocide” is being committed—and which the Chinese keep insisting are vocational training centers.

Last Friday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published yet another blistering communiqué signed by Sophie Richardson, China Director at the organization. “The Chinese government is committing human rights violations on a scope and scale unimaginable since the last time a high commissioner visited in 2005, partly because there is no fear of accountability. The high commissioner needs to work to end, not enable, that perception,” she wrote.

So naturally the question here is: with so much pressure put on her by civil society and governments—more than 200 NGOs and several Western governments have demanded the report be published—why has Michelle Bachelet so far refused to release it, widely understood to have been completed last August after two years of work?

Explanations range from sheer stubbornness to reasons linked in part to her personal biography. “She simply hates to be pushed around,” one keen OHCHR watcher tells The G|O, “but I also believe that, coming from Chile, her political sensitivities are harbored in the South.” Her father, a general in the Chilean air force, was tortured under the Pinochet regime, installed by the US after the overthrow of the Allende regime.

“A large part of the evidence gathered to document the Chinese government’s human rights violations in Xinjiang have been gathered by German researcher Adrian Zenz,” a human rights expert ventured to me a few days ago. “No one questions the quality of his research and documentary evidence, but his research is financed by the US. That might be part of the explanation.” A scholar at the US-based Victim of Communism Memorial Foundation, Adrian Zenz has been sanctioned by Beijing. He did not answer a recent request for comment by The G|O.

As an avowed defender of the South, the increased inequalities created by the pandemic have also made a mark on Bachelet, and may have favored what appears to be her emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights, to the detriment of the defense of political and civil rights. She denies it, recently telling an audience during a private luncheon that these rights are closely related and interdependent, and that “no category of rights exists or has any real meaning without respect for the others,” stressing that this vision is embedded in the UN Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs).

But beyond Bachelet’s personal sensibilities and management type, two other factors with a larger significance for OHCHR might, beyond the Chinese issue, shed light on how she operates as High Commissioner and why it has been difficult for her to convince her critics. These factors were raised and have coalesced during many conversations The G|O has had with several human rights actors over the last few weeks in researching this story. The first might well be the most defining one, for it has less to do with Bachelet’s personality than with her background: she stands in contrast to all of her recent predecessors, who were active in human rights and international justice before being appointed high-commissioner: Louise Arbour was a Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Navi Pillay was judge and President at the ICTR. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein was very active at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. Michelle Bachelet shares none of these credentials. At heart, she remains a politician—and a most savvy one—but she is not truly a human rights defender. She was deliberately chosen by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as a practitioner of quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy, to replace Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein who never shied away for talking truth to power.

The other reason may be explained by a growing shift in the human rights and accountability ecosystem, now largely driven by civil society and with a push for accountability coming from outside the traditional UN human-rights system. From the Xinjiang Papers to the Xinxiang Police Files, from Ukraine to the New York Times visual investigations of Russia’s alleged war crimes, new actors are now increasingly leading the fight against impunity. A new ecosystem that has greater and more pressing demands, loud and confrontational, one that she doesn’t readily and easily engage with. According to several sources, her relationship with non-governmental human rights organizations is severely fraught.

Michelle Bachelet is acutely aware of what is at stake with her visit to China. The anxiety of her staff is palpable. “It is the visit of her life,” a Beijing-based Western ambassador is quoted by Le Monde as saying. Telling also is the fact that after many unsuccessful requests over the years to grant an interview to Geneva’s paper of record, Le Temps, she finally agreed to answer some of her critics—through a spokesperson—shortly before leaving Geneva:

“Wherever we think our voice can make a difference, we say it loud and clear. We have done so with the five permanent members of the Security Council and with other states,” she told the paper, adding, “during my visit I look forward to raising these issues in a frank and open manner with the authorities and other actors.”

She also told Le Temps: “I ask for patience and your support and to evaluate the visit once it has taken place rather than discrediting it out of hand.” But for the victims of the atrocities committed in Xinjiang and elsewhere, patience ran out a long time ago. “We have been waiting long enough for this report. Michelle Bachelet has betrayed us,” Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, told me recently over Zoom.