Michelle Bachelet has said she was unable to speak to any detained Uighurs or their families during her controversial visit to Xinjiang, and was accompanied by government officials while in the region.
The UN chief of human rights, who this week announced she would not seek a new term, told a session of the 50th Geneva Human Rights Council that there were restrictions on her visit to the region in China, where authorities have been accused of committing crimes. against humanity and genocide against the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
Bachelet and a team from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) spent six days in Guangdong and Xinjiang for a visit that activists and some Western governments described as a propaganda coup for the Chinese government.
In a statement on Wednesday, Bachelet said she was able to meet with members of civil society organizations without government oversight, but in Xinjiang she was “accompanied by government officials throughout the visit”.
At a press conference in Guangdong held on the last day of her trip, Bachelet was asked directly by the Guardian about her ability to talk to Uighur civilians and other people “without supervision” and to have free and open discussions about their experiences.
At the time, Bachelet said that because of the Covid bubble, they were not able to meet everyone “but with the people we were able to talk to, it was in a way unsupervised.”
On Wednesday, she repeated “restrictions” on the visit. “As would be true for any high-level visit that is by definition not an investigative mission, there were restrictions specifically given the prevailing Covid restrictions,” she said.
“I visited Kashgar Prison plus a former so-called VETC [vocational education and training centre], where I talked to the authorities. I was not able to speak to any Uighurs currently detained or their families during the visit. But in anticipation of this, I met some former inmates who are now out of the country and with families who have lost contact with my loved ones before my visit. “
Following her visit, Bachelet was criticized by rights groups, some Western governments and Uighur activists for failing to strongly condemn the Chinese government’s abuses in Xinjiang, and for using terminology preferred by the government at her press conference, including the Vocational Training Center. “. VETCs are the government’s name for a network of facilities where an estimated one million Uighurs have been arrested and allegedly subjected to human rights violations.
Activists including Uighur human rights lawyer Rayhan Asat told the media that their families in Xinjiang had been prevented from leaving their homes by authorities during Bachelet’s visit. Asat’s brother has been detained in the Xinjiang system since he disappeared in 2016.
The OHCHR has been under pressure to publish a long-awaited report on the human rights situation in China, which was completed at the end of 2021.
On Wednesday at a separate address, Bachelet said her office is working on updates to their assessment of the situation in Xinjiang, which will be shared with the Chinese government for comment before publication.