Thu, June 30, 2022

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UN rights chief urges China to review Xinjiang counter-terrorism practices


The United Nations human rights chief is calling on China to review all its counter-terrorism measures in Xinjiang, and ensure they are in line with international standards and not applied "in an arbitrary and discriminatory way".

Wrapping up her six-day official visit to the country – the first by a UN human rights high commissioner in 17 years, Michelle Bachelet said on Saturday that while violent acts of extremism have a significant impact on the lives and safety of the community, it is critical that responses do not violate human rights.

"The application of relevant laws and policies, and any mandatory measures imposed on individuals, need to be subject to independent judicial oversight, with greater transparency of judicial proceedings," she told reporters via a video link from Guangzhou.

"All victims must be able to seek redress."

'Deradicalisation' camps

Bachelet had gone to Kashgar and Urumqi in China's western Xinjiang province, where more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities had supposedly been held in detention camps to be deradicalised.

Beijing says these are vocational education and training centres (VETCs), and all participants had graduated by 2019.

The UN rights chief said she had been assured by the authorities that these camps had been dismantled.

"While I am unable to assess the full scale of the VETCs, I raised with the government the lack of independent judicial oversight of the operation of the programme, 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," she said.

She did not elaborate on what those indicators are.

Bachelet's visit had been shadowed by nagging doubts about the level of access she would receive, especially since she would be travelling within a closed-loop bubble to prevent the spread of Covid-19. No media accompanied her.

Choreographed tour

Last Monday, during her video call with diplomats, United States Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns and some others expressed concern that she would be led on a highly controlled and choreographed tour by Beijing.

The US had called her visit under such conditions "a mistake".

Bachelet stressed that her trip was not an investigation, as official visits by a high commissioner are high profile and not conducive to the kind of detailed and discreet work required of a probe.

She defended her visit by saying it was an opportunity to meet the country's top leaders on human rights "to listen to each other, raise concerns, explore and pave the way for more regular, meaningful interactions in the future".

It also provided a chance for her to ask China to use its leverage to bring about political solutions to crises in the region and the world, although she did not say what these issues were.

Besides a virtual call with President Xi Jinping, the UN rights envoy also met Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

When asked about cases of families seeking information about their missing loved ones in Xinjiang, Bachelet said she had spoken to the authorities about them, but added: "I don't want to harm, so I can't go into more details".

Besides Xinjiang, she also urged Beijing not to stifle human rights activists and academics in Hong Kong, saying their arrests under the national security law are "deeply worrying".

Hundreds of activists, journalists, lawyers and academics have been arrested since the law was introduced in June 2020.

Bachelet's visit has been a highly politicised affair with a tug of war over competing narratives unfolding during the week.

After her call with Xi, Chinese state media reported that the rights chief had "expressed admiration for China's efforts on ... protecting human rights", which her office later debunked by providing a transcript of her opening remarks.

Damning reports by a consortium of media outlets, including the BBC, were also timed for release as she began her visit.

Based on leaked police documents and pictures mostly from 2017 and 2018, the reports showed there was, among other things, an order for guards to shoot if any detainees in the Xinjiang camps tried to escape and refused to stop.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman has accused "anti-China forces" of using the reports to "smear" China.

State propaganda

On Saturday night, Bachelet said her office and Beijing will hold an annual senior strategic meeting, while a working group will facilitate discussions on a range of issues related to human rights, from poverty alleviation, and counter-terrorism to judicial issues.

A readout by the Foreign Ministry said Vice-Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu told reporters that China is ready to work with the UN, but that some Western countries had "abused multilateral human rights platforms to spread rumours and lies".

"These behaviours have gravely poisoned the atmosphere of international human rights cooperation, and must be taken seriously, and must be changed," he reportedly said.

The Straits Times

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UN rights chief urges China to review Xinjiang counter-terrorism practices

Published : May 29, 2022

By : The Straits Times