U.N. Human-Rights Chief to Leave Role, in Wake of China Visit


HONG KONG—The United Nations’ top human-rights advocate said she wouldn’t seek a second term, following a barrage of sharp criticism from Western officials and activists over her handling of alleged rights violations in China.

Addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, Michelle Bachelet said the council’s current session, started this week, would be the last one she briefs as U.N. High Commissioner for human rights, a role will relinquish when her four-year stint ends at the end of August.

Ms. Bachelet, 70 years old, cited personal reasons for not seeking another term, telling reporters there was no link between her decision and the criticism she has faced. The former Chilean president said she had made her decision and informed U.N. Secretary General António Guterres of it before traveling to China in late May for a visit that Western officials and rights advocates have panned for allegedly playing into Beijing’s narratives about its rights record.

“Can’t you imagine that having been president twice, I have received a lot of criticism in my life?” Ms. Bachelet said. “So that’s not what makes me do certain decisions.”

After taking office as high commissioner in September 2018, Ms. Bachelet has helmed a yearslong effort by the U.N. rights agency to assess claims of rampant abuses in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. There, the Communist Party has directed a far-reaching campaign to forcibly assimilate ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.

Some Western officials and a U.K.-based panel of lawyers, academics and activists have described China’s treatment of Uyghurs as a form of genocide. Beijing has denied any rights abuses in Xinjiang and denounced the genocide allegation as “the lie of the century.”

Rights watchdogs accused Ms. Bachelet of being too deferential to China, particularly during her visit to the country late last month—a trip that her critics say provided Beijing with political cover for its policies in Xinjiang.

In her Monday remarks, Ms. Bachelet offered a brief recap of her China trip, saying she raised concerns with Beijing over the human-rights situation in Xinjiang, including the “broad arbitrary detention and patterns of abuse” that Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have faced.

She said her office is updating its official assessment of conditions in Xinjiang, but didn’t specify when the report might be published. Asked by a reporter on Monday whether she would commit to releasing the assessment before she leaves office, she said yes. Western officials and rights activists have accused the U.N. of delaying the report’s release and called for its publication before Ms. Bachelet’s China trip.

Michelle Bachelet met with Chinese officials in Guangzhou, China, during a May trip that critics say gave China a propaganda coup.


ohchr handout/Shutterstock

Ms. Bachelet said the Chinese government agreed to arrange an “annual senior meeting on human rights” with the U.N. rights agency, but didn’t elaborate.

Researchers and journalists have documented a far-reaching campaign of forced assimilation in Xinjiang, where the Communist Party has imposed policies of involuntary birth control, political indoctrination, mass detention and forced labor on Uyghurs and other minorities.

Ms. Bachelet’s visit was the first to China by a U.N. High Commissioner for human rights since 2005, arranged after years of negotiations between the U.N. rights agency and Beijing.

Western politicians and rights watchdogs have questioned the timing and purpose of Ms. Bachelet’s visit, saying she was taken on a stage-managed tour that gave China a propaganda coup while yielding few meaningful insights into the situation in Xinjiang. Beijing described Ms. Bachelet’s trip as a success, saying it validated China’s efforts in improving the lives of its people and safeguarding their human rights.

“We find it highly regrettable that the Chinese authorities did not provide full and unfettered access to High Commissioner Bachelet,”

Valdis Dombrovskis,

the European Union’s top trade and economic official, told European lawmakers on Wednesday. He also called on Ms. Bachelet’s office to release its Xinjiang report as “a matter of absolute priority.”

The following day, the European Parliament adopted a nonbinding resolution condemning China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, and expressing regret “that U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Bachelet failed to clearly hold the Chinese Government accountable for human rights abuses against the Uyghurs during her visit.”

Also last week, a group of 37 academics and researchers published a joint letter saying they were disturbed by Ms. Bachelet’s remarks on her China trip, saying her comments “ignored and even contradicted” the academic consensus on China’s crackdown on ethnic minorities.

Write to Chun Han Wong at [email protected]

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