Bachelet presses China for U.N. access to Xinjiang's Uighurs

GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Wednesday that she is seeking access to China to verify continuing reports of disappearances and arbitrary detentions, particularly of Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

China has faced growing international opprobrium for what it calls re-education and training centers in the remote western region: Activists say they are mass detention camps holding more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims.

“My Office seeks to engage on this issue with the Government for full access to carry out an independent assessment of the continuing reports pointing to wide patterns of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions, particularly in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region,” Bachelet said.

It was her second appeal in six months at the U.N. Human Rights Council, where China’s delegation is expected to respond later this week.

China has previously said it would welcome U.N. officials if they avoided “interfering in domestic matters”.

The U.N. religious freedom investigator Ahmed Shaheed on Tuesday revealed his request to visit Xinjiang, made in February, to look into serious concerns over its ‘de-extremification’ law. He has had no reply.


Activists have urged European and Muslim nations to take the lead at the rights forum in establishing a U.N. investigation into China’s detention and what they call its “forced indoctrination” of ethnic and religious minorities.

“This brutal and surgical suppression of fundamental freedoms of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities demands a heightened response,” Sarah Brooks of the International Service for Human Rights said at a panel event on Wednesday.

China, which has shown diplomats its re-education centers, told them recently that “absurd preachings” from Islamist extremists there had turned some people into “murderous devils”.

Dolkun Isa, president of the exiled World Uighur Congress, said on Wednesday that two million people are detained in “concentration camps” in Xinjiang, including 338 intellectuals.

A Chinese diplomat, identified as Dai Demao by U.N. and diplomatic sources, denied the allegations.

“There is no internment camp, no concentration camp, there is only vocational training centers,” Dai told the panel.

U.S. diplomat Jason Mack said that U.N. reports paint “a disturbing picture of what is occurring in the Xinjiang region”.

China has made criminal many aspects of religious practice and culture in Xinjiang, “including punishments for teaching Muslim texts to children and bans on parents giving their children Uighur names”, he said.

“Citizens can also be detained for having abnormal beards, wearing headscarves, refusing to watch state television... abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, attending mosques, practicing traditional funeral rituals, having family or friends abroad, traveling abroad oneself, owning camping equipment and asking others not to swear,” Mack said.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Tom Miles