The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.N. human rights chief has failed us, our families — and the world

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on May 25.

Rushan Abbas is the founder and executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs. Dolkun Isa is president of World Uyghur Congress.

U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet faced her most important test last week — and she failed miserably. Her visit to China in May — as the world waited for her to release a long-overdue U.N. report on human rights abuses in the Uyghur homeland — summarily undercut more than five years of efforts by Uyghur activists and our allies to tell the world what is happening to our people.

For years, Uyghurs have worked tirelessly to cut through China’s propaganda machine and shine a light on its ongoing genocide against our people. Countries around the world have acknowledged this genocide, and an independent panel of legal experts concluded last December in a people’s tribunal that China’s actions amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity.

In her visit, Bachelet had the opportunity to confront this Orwellian police state. Instead, she repeated talking points from China itself, offering soft words that do not match the thousands of testimonies of survivors and families in the diaspora. She invoked Beijing’s false rhetoric characterizing this persecution as “counterterrorism and deradicalization” and did not insist on visiting a single camp in which Uyghurs — an estimated 2 million — are being held.

The trip raised alarm bells among human rights advocates and Uyghur activists from the outset. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ team did not receive unfettered access. Beijing arranged for travel in a “closed loop” with no foreign press in attendance, claiming this was to prevent the spread of covid-19. Under such circumstances, the U.N. and Bachelet should never have agreed to the visit. There could be no neutral and balanced visit without free and independent access to the people affected. Bachelet did not meet or speak to the family members of the victims, and only offered meek suggestions for change. It was a trip entirely curated by China to amplify their state media propaganda.

By allowing Beijing to frame her visit, Bachelet has caused irreparable harm. In fact, report after report have found accounts of widespread torture and abuse, including systematic rape, forced sterilization and forced separation of children from their families.

Just last month, a consortium of news organizations released the “Xinjiang Police Files,” a major leak of documents and photographs from inside China’s brutal genocidal machinery. The cache includes thousands of photos of detained Uyghurs and documents instructing police to blindfold, cuff and shackle detainees. One part of the leak describes an apparent shoot-to-kill policy for detainees who try to escape.

Amid all the disturbing images, what left us especially worried and full of grief were photos of thousands of Uyghurs who have been verified as detained. When China claims that their concentration camps are “vocational” and voluntary, the tearful eyes of Hawagul Tewakkul say something different. This is what Bachelet’s promised human rights report should have publicly documented.

In March, Campaign for Uyghurs and the World Uyghur Congress joined more than 190 other organizations urging Bachelet to release the report, which she said her office was finalizing in September. Our organizations sent private letters. We were met with a deafening silence. Before her visit, a group of 60 organizations once more demanded the release of the report and transparency. To this day, we are still waiting.

For us, the delay and reluctance to confront Beijing are heartbreaking and terrifying. In September 2018, Rushan Abbas’ sister, Dr. Gulshan Abbas, was taken away by the Chinese regime days after Rushan spoke against the Uyghur genocide, in what was clearly an act of retaliation. Dolkun Isa’s mother was also taken and died in 2018, at the age of 78; Dolkun only learned of her passing through reports nearly a month later. Dolkun has also learned that his younger brother Hushtar Isa was given a life sentence, while his older brother Yalqun Isa was reportedly given a long-term sentence. Politically-motivated sentences are not rare, especially for those with vocal relatives in the diaspora.

Bachelet, with her mandate of uplifting and protecting human rights, has a responsibility to defend the oppressed. She needed to forcefully and publicly demand that China release those who are arbitrarily detained and end its brutal and systematic violence. In failing to do so, she has let down Uyghurs — and the world.

Bachelet’s term as commissioner, which ends Aug. 31, is concluding on the worst possible note. We hope the next high commissioner will not bow to China as Bachelet has — and will unequivocally speak the truth and push for an end to this unspeakable evil.