A United Nations team has landed in China to prepare the groundwork for the long-awaited visit of its human rights chief, slated for next month.
The five-member team, which is visiting “at the invitation of the government”, set off on Sunday for Guangzhou where they will “quarantine in line with Covid-19 travel requirements”, UN human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell confirmed to the Post.
Once out of quarantine, they are “due to visit the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region”, Throssell said.
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The UN’s top human rights official, Michelle Bachelet, had been negotiating with Beijing since September 2018 about a visit to Xinjiang, where some 1 million mainly Uygur Muslims are alleged to have been held in mass detention camps. China rejects all such claims and calls them politically motivated.
In March, the former Chilean president announced that she had “recently reached an agreement with the government of China for a visit” in May, including to Xinjiang.
That would make Bachelet the first UN high commissioner for human rights to visit China since 2005, though the timing of her trip has yet to be confirmed.
The parameters of a visit were a stumbling block for years, with Bachelet’s office repeatedly insisting that she would require “unfettered, meaningful access, including unsupervised interviews with civil society”.
In January, the Post reported that China had approved a visit following the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, provided the trip was “friendly” in nature and not framed as an investigation.
Beijing also insisted that Bachelet’s office hold off on publishing a report into Xinjiang ahead of the Games, as had been requested by Washington, sources said at the time.
The report has still not been published, with no timeline forthcoming.
The advance team will be expected to ensure “meaningful access” for Bachelet, Throssell said.
They will try to “gain a clear understanding of the human rights situation in the country and engage in discussions on relevant issues with a wide range of stakeholders, including senior government officials and civil society”.
“In countries where the UN Human Rights Office does not have a presence, it is standard practice for a preliminary technical mission to be ahead of a possible high commission visit,” Throssell said, in response to repeated enquiries by the Post.
In 2019, for example, an advance team went ahead of Bachelet’s mission to Venezuela, “precisely to prepare and see what was feasible”, she added.
However, it was not immediately clear whether Bachelet herself would have to quarantine when she arrived in China. “Given the Covid situation, the team will need to adapt to changing circumstances,” Throssell said.
The prospect of quarantine could prove disruptive to any unfettered inspection.
Currently, travelers to China have to quarantine for a minimum of two weeks. Often, they need to quarantine again when they reach a separate destination.
In Guangzhou, current pandemic rules stipulate 28 days of blended quarantine between hotels and private homes. Any visitor must spend 14 days under quarantine in designated hotels, followed by seven days of home quarantine if they have a local residence. They can then be released from isolation but must monitor their own health conditions for another seven days.
In cities and counties, quarantine smaller rules vary wildly, raising some questions about how freely the UN staff could move around the country.
Quarantine rules have been waived in the past for senior visitors, such as the dignitaries who met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing at the start of the Winter Olympics in February.
Bachelet’s potential visit also comes towards the end of her term in office, which expires in September.
Perhaps paving the way for a visit, China’s top legislature last week ratified two International Labor Organization (ILO) treaties on forced labor, which are particularly sensitive given the allegations of such abuse in Xinjiang.
Rights groups such as Human Rights Watch have urged Bachelet to release her report and to ensure that meetings with rights advocates in China are “carried out safely, that her arrangements with the Chinese government are transparent, and that minimum standards for an unfettered visit are met , among other considerations.”
“The Chinese government has given no indication that the UN high commissioner will be allowed to see anything they don’t want her to see,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
“She should not fail the victims of crimes against humanity and other grave abuses by smoldering the Chinese authorities to manipulate her visit.”
Emma Reilly, a former UN human rights officer and now an outspoken critic, said that the visit was “just another fig leaf to delay publication beyond the end of [Bachelet’s] term in September”.
“Her visit is explicitly dependent on Covid restrictions, so I strongly suspect she will simply suddenly realise at the last minute that she simply cannot spare two weeks for quarantine,” Reilly said.
“But, of course, information from the advance team will have to be integrated, ensuring the report cannot be released during her term.”
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.