The United Nations, Chinese human rights abuses and United States interference

Issue 
MIchelle Bachelet in Xinjiang, China
Michelle Bachelet visiting Xinjiang province in May, 2022. Photo: OHCHR

The visit to China by United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet last month, became an intensely politicised event. The issue of Chinese human rights abuses and UN responses was seized on by the US State Department in a blatant attempt to dominate an independent, international institution.

The visit was the first at such a level in 17 years. Bachelet, the former president of Chile, was immediately attacked, by both the influential Human Rights Watch organisation and the United States, for not being strong enough in her criticism of Chinese human rights abuses in the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. This is despite the delegation specifically raising the Xinjiang issue alongside ongoing problems in Tibet and Hong Kong.

The international mainstream media quickly took up the issue. The visit, its purpose and outcomes became an issue of secondary importance to the opportunity of intensifying anti-Chinese rhetoric.

The trip as Bachelet stated, “provides an opportunity for me to better understand the situation in China, but also for the authorities in China to better understand our concerns and to potentially rethink policies that we believe may impact negatively on human rights”. A primary objective was, according to the Commissioner, to prepare the ground for more direct interactions with China and to “support” China to better meet its obligations under international human rights law.

The aims and objectives of the visit were limited and tentative. The response was not. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken led the charge. Just how a visit by a UN Human Rights delegation became the business of the US has largely been ignored. Blinken was unambiguous, saying the US “remains concerned about the visit” to China and Chinese “efforts to restrict and manipulate her visit”.

Blinken criticised China of stage-managing the visit and effectively accused Bachelet of being a dupe of Beijing. The Chinese Global Times, in turn, reminded the world that the US and its allies had long been demanding that Bachelet visit China and had been critical of the UN for dragging its feet on the issue. The Chinese pointed to what they see as an “ulterior” motive behind the US-led attacks on Bachelet.

Bachelet’s visit to China was significant, but it quickly became hijacked in the service of international political rivalry. The very criticisms being levelled by the US; that China was manipulating the visit can be seen as a mirror image of the US that seeks to manipulate Bachelet’s visit to further its own political objectives.

Blinken won widespread support from the international media, including in Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald made as much as it could of Bachelet’s inability to accurately and independently assess whether human rights abuses had taken place as part of China’s so-called “anti-radicalisation measures” in Xinjiang.

The fact remains that China’s record on human rights leaves a lot to be desired. The UN visit was simply an opening gambit in a longer game. The US has sought to co-opt the UN into its service, which can hardly help the UN in its objectives, or the people of China who deserve better.

Bachelet’s entourage was, doubtless, given a “massaged” view of China. The attacks, however, have left out some rather important facts. The trip was not intended as a UN confrontation with the Xi Jinping regime, let alone part of a vanguard attack on behalf of the US. But, beyond the symbolic nature of the UN visit, representations were made about a range of human rights issues.

A UN statement made the point that Bachelet had raised concerns with Chinese officials about Xinjiang and the Chinese treatment of the Uyghur population, as well as Tibet and Hong Kong. In it, Bachelet said: “To those who have sent me appeals, asking me to raise issues or cases with the authorities — I have heard you. I will continue to follow up on such issues and instances of concern on a sustained basis.”

What, if anything, might come from this? The UN has routinely been criticised, and rightly so, for being an ineffectual voice. The issues that face minorities in China cannot be dismissed.

Whether Bachelet acted forcefully enough in her visit is not the concern. China has a proven and poor record on issues of human rights. That, too, is not the central issue. That Blinken and the US State Department presume to demand that the UN dance to their tune is the real issue.