UN rights chief’s tenure ends in disappointment for some China activists

GENEVA – Ms Michelle Bachelet, once a political detainee under Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and a doctor for tortured children, pledged to be the champion of victims when she became UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2018.

But as her tenure ends this week, family members and advocates for those caught up in China’s repression of dissent have said they feel let down despite the last-minute release of a report critical of China, and they are calling for a more outspoken successor.

“I feel terribly disappointed that our letter (to Bachelet) was totally disregarded and no follow up,” said Ms Luo Shengchun, the wife of jailed Chinese rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi, who wrote to Ms Bachelet seeking his release in May, shortly before Ms Bachelet visited China on a rare fact-finding tour.

“I wish for them to replace her with an officer with a more clear position with China. The UN can really do much more,” she told Reuters from New York, where she lives in voluntary exile awaiting the verdict of Mr Ding’s trial on state subversion charges.

Her last hurrah

Ms Luo’s comments reflect a widely held view among civil society and Western states that Ms Bachelet, a former Chilean president, has been too soft on some governments when they are backsliding on human rights around the world.

However, they welcomed the release on her last day of a report on the Xinjiang region, which said China’s “arbitrary and discriminatory detention” of Uighurs and other Muslims may constitute crimes against humanity.

“We are mostly disappointed and expected her to be firmer on China overall; however, leaving with this report helps her office’s credibility,” said Ms Zumretay Arkin, spokesperson for the World Uighur Congress.

Ms Bachelet earlier said she has been under “tremendous pressure” both to publish and not to publish, with Beijing asking her to bury it.

China, which vigorously denies any allegations of wrongdoing in Xinjiang, wrote a 131-page response to the report, which its mission in Geneva described as a “farce”.

On Mr Ding’s case, China’s Foreign Ministry said it is a country governed by the rule of law, and everyone is equal before the law.

Fresh start

Ms Bachelet’s critics hope her retirement on Wednesday will mark a fresh start.

“We are looking for somebody who is willing to speak out in a principled way, regardless of the perpetrator,” said Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth. However, her defenders say her political skills won her access, such as the first trip by a high commissioner to China since 2005 and a deal to bring monitors to Venezuela. They also praised her attacks on systemic racism and commitment to new environmental rights.

Ms Bachelet defended her approach to the job.

“Constructive engagement creates the space for criticism to be acknowledged and acted upon, to ultimately help make a difference in people’s lives on the ground,” she said Thursday.