China agrees to host visit to Xinjiang by UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet ‘after Olympics’

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Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a signing ceremony ahead of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China in 2017 (Getty Images)
Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a signing ceremony ahead of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China in 2017 (Getty Images)

China has agreed to host the United Nations high commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) to visit Xinjiang – a region linked to wide-scale abuses of Uyghur Muslims – after the conclusion of Winter Olympics, sources told a Chinese newspaper.

The UN human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet secured approval for a visit to Xinjiang region of China, “in the first half of the year after the Beijing Winter Olympics”, according to an exclusive report by South China Morning Post.

The reported breakthrough comes after UNHCR has been pursuing negotiations with Beijing to schedule the visit since September 2018.

The permission has been granted by the Xi Jinping-led government on the condition the trip should be “friendly” and not framed as an investigation.

China has been long accused by Human Rights Groups of systemically oppressing Uyghurs, an ethnic Muslim minority in the north-western region of Xinjiang.

Concerns have been raised about widespread abuses, including mass incarceration, forced labour, torture and sexual assault of more than a million Uyghurs in detention centres in the region.

China has denied the allegations, saying the centres are providing voluntary vocational training as part of a programme to prevent separatist violence.

Ms Bachelet’s office confirmed that they are in talks with China for a possible visit but asserted that it must be “meaningful, with unsupervised access” to the Xinjiang region.

“As the High Commissioner has said, meaningful, unfettered access to the Xinjiang region is crucial,” her spokesperson Rupert Colville said on Friday.

Sources told the newspaper that Beijing has demanded “a delay” in the release of an upcoming UNHCR report on Xinjiang until the Games have wrapped up.

“After recent rounds of discussions with Bachelet and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, China has agreed to host Bachelet in the first half of the year after the Beijing Winter Olympics,” said one of the sources, who asked not to be identified.

“China also made clear that it wants to define the trip as a friendly visit instead of an investigation with the presumption of guilt.”

The Beijing Winter Olympic Games, scheduled to run from 4-20 February, have again put a spotlight on China’s human rights record with a number of countries calling for a boycott over the abuse of Uyghurs.

The US Washington said it would not send diplomatic representation to the Games because of China’s "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity" against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The US’ call for boycott was soon followed by Australia, Britain, Japan and Canada with China warning that the US would "pay the price."

A week before the event begins, an alliance of 243 human rights groups and non-government organisations have demanded a diplomatic boycott of the Games.

"The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will open amid atrocities and other grave human rights violations by the Chinese government," the organizations said in a statement.

Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters on Friday, that no one should be fooled in China’s attempt to distract from its crimes.

"No one, especially the world’s leading human rights diplomat, should be fooled by the Chinese government’s efforts to distract attention away from its crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic communities," she said.

Ms Bachelet was a former president of Chile and has been serving the United Nations high commissioner for Human Rights since 2018.

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