The top UN human rights official said any action by the Chinese government to tackle alleged terrorism and reverse what Beijing calls radicalism must not come at the expense of human rights.
Michelle Bachelet spoke at a press briefing at the end of her six-day trip to China, which she repeatedly insisted was not an ‘investigation’ into Chinese practices in the Xinjiang region or elsewhere.
“I have encouraged the government to undertake a review of all counter-terrorism and deradicalization policies to ensure that they are fully in line with international human rights standards, and in particular – that they are not applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner,” Bachelet said.
His remarks were quickly criticized by human rights defenders on social networks.
“It’s absolutely beautiful,” Adrian Zenz, senior fellow in Chinese studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, told Bloomberg News of the remarks. “It betrays a lack of understanding or a willingness to understand what has happened in the region.”
Bachelet said she raised the “lack of independent judicial oversight” of the VETC system, or what China calls vocational education and training centers in Xinjiang but are actually detention camps. Still, she was unable to “assess the full scale” of the VETCs, she added.
Bachelet mostly avoided controversy during her press conference, during which she answered reporters’ questions in both English and Chinese. His most detailed response was to a question about gun violence and racism in the United States posed by a Chinese state media reporter.
Bachelet’s visit had previously been criticized for failing to ensure unhindered access to Xinjiang, where a 2019 United Nations assessment said around 1 million people have been detained.
Bachelet said on Saturday she was able to speak “unsupervised” with Chinese people. She said she visited a prison and a former vocational education and training center, and was able to interact with a range of civil society organizations, academics, and community and religious leaders.
US Ambassador Nicholas Burns earlier expressed “deep concern” to Bachelet over Beijing’s attempts to manipulate his trip, according to people on the phone this week with China-based diplomats who requested anonymity as they do not were not authorized to speak publicly.
Call with Xi
Earlier in the week, President Xi Jinping held a call with Bachelet, an unusual move for a leader who speaks primarily with other heads of state, which underscored the importance China places on his visit.
Chinese state media later said Bachelet praised China’s human rights record during the call – something his office later appeared to deny in an emailed ‘clarification’ of his “real” remarks.
She also met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, pictured holding a copy of Xi’s book on human rights, and addressed students at Guangzhou University in southern China, on a wide range of topics, including human rights and sustainable development.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Ma Xhaoxu briefed the media on Bachelet’s visit on Saturday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on its website. The two sides “had thorough, thorough and frank discussions in a spirit of mutual respect and openness”, according to the ministry.
The Chinese reading denounced the recent trend “to politicize and instrumentalize the United Nations Human Rights Council” and Western countries “to use human rights to interfere in the internal affairs of others”. .
Philip Alston, a law professor at New York University School of Law, said in a webinar on Friday that despite criticism, Bachelet’s trip was “tremendously significant” because it shed light on Xinjiang.
The former UN Human Rights Council special rapporteur has dismissed allegations that she was being used by Beijing.
“She’s very experienced, she’s very sophisticated,” he said of the 70-year-old, who was the first woman elected to lead a South American nation. “She is fully aware of all the different political dimensions of what she is undertaking.”
Zenz, however, said that “it will be very easy for Chinese state propaganda to present this as at least a partial acquittal of their policy in Xinjiang.”
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