Uyghur survivors from Chinese internment camps rallied outside the United Nations office in Geneva last April 25, marking the start of a weeklong protest to get an audience with the UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet.

Qelbinur Sidiq, Gulbahar Jelilova, Gulbahar Haitiwaji, and Omir Bekali are part of the Uyghur, a predominantly Muslim minority that resides in the north-west Chinese region of Xinjiang. The four came to Geneva to talk with Bachelet and convince her to release a report detailing the human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Bachelet announced last month that an agreement had been made with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to visit the country, which includes a trip to the controversial region. However, the protestors doubt that the Chinese will allow the UN Commissioner to see the real atrocities in Xinjiang.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet during a press conference addressing war crimes in Ukraine (UN Human Rights Council/Twitter)

“We’re all fully aware that China is a very crafty and deceptive country extremely skillful at choreographing fake people and fake stages,” said Haitiwaji.

Haitiwaji was arrested by Chinese authorities in 2017, during a time of mass detentions of Muslim minority groups, including the Uyghurs, on the premise of religious extremism and other charges.

“What worries me most is that it’s really not useful but damaging if Michelle Bachelet does not see the real genocide and real repression, but only meets with the people and fake stages set up by China,” she added.

Jelilova, who was detained for 15 months on accusations of aiding terrorism, even offered to accompany the UN in the excursion to the province.

“I’d be happy to take them to the camps and prisons in Urumqi,” Jelilova said. She adds that she can show the UN team a facility where Uyghurs were executed and identify a hospital used for harvesting the organs of dead prisoners.

“If we don’t accompany them, China will play a lot of games not to show them the reality. That’s why we’re requesting to go on this trip.”

Bekali, on the other hand, expressed that the demonstrations outside the UN headquarters were one of the first solid steps to end the ongoing genocide of their people at the hands of the Chinese cadres. Bekali was reportedly tortured by the Chinese in the camps for nine months as he was accused of being a terrorist by the Chinese state.

The regional government of Xinjiang has already released statements that deny or discredit the claims of Uyghur survivors who testified on the atrocities that were allegedly happening in the region’s internment camps.

Bachelet first announced her request to visit Xinjiang in September 2018. However, concerns about the amount of access the Commissioner and her team will be given during the visit have delayed the trip. Global human rights organizations said that the UN visit must be independent and unrestrained to yield credible results.

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This was echoed by US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who also called for the release of the UN report on Xinjiang.

“We urge High Commissioner @MBachelet to release the @UNHumanRights report on human rights issues in Xinjiang, which was being finalized in September 2021. And let’s be clear: any visit by the High Commissioner to China must have unhindered and unfettered access,” she wrote in a tweet.

Who are the Uyghur people?

As mentioned, the Uyghur is a mostly Muslim minority group that lives in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. There are approximately 12 million Uyghurs, and these people have their own language. Culturally and ethnically, they are much closer to Central Asian countries than China. However, they reside within China’s territory. The group makes up less than half of the total population in the Xinjiang region.

Detainees in a Xinjiang Re-education Camp located in Lop County listening to "de-radicalization" talks (Wikimedia Commons). Source:
Detainees in a Xinjiang Re-education Camp located in Lop County listening to “de-radicalization” talks (Uyghur genocide Wikipedia page)

Several countries have accused China of committing genocide and other crimes against humanity against the Uyghur people. Some 1.8 million Uyghurs have been detained in internment camps, with many reports stating that the Uyghurs have been subjected to torture and forced labor. They are also forced to learn about Marxism and renounce their religion. These include accusations of forcing Uyghurs into internment camps, nonconsensual sterilization of Uyghur women, taking away children from their families, and attempting to sabotage cultural traditions.

The Chinese government continues to deny these allegations of abuses in Xinjiang. It claims that internment camps were part of their “re-education” system to help prevent terrorism and root out Islamist extremism. They also claim that the Uyghur have conducted a violent campaign against Chinese authorities to achieve independence.

UN Advance Team Arrives in China

While Bachelet is scheduled to arrive in May, an advance team from the UN Human Rights office has been sent in preparation for the visit. The five-person delegation is currently finishing their quarantine in Guangzhou before being transported to Xinjiang.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin announced the arrival of the advance team at a news conference.

“What I want to tell you is that the goal of the high commissioner’s visit is to promote exchange and cooperation,” Wang said. “We are opposed to political manipulation by exploiting the matter.”

Gulbahar Haitiwaji, Qelbinur Sidiq and Omer Bekali in 2021 (Ilham Tohti Initiative). Source:
Gulbahar Haitiwaji, Qelbinur Sidiq and Omer Bekali in 2021 (Ilham Tohti Initiative/Twitter)

The detachment is expected to gain “meaningful access” and 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,” according to U.N. human rights spokesperson Elizabeth Throssell.

Washington-based Uyghurs rights group, Campaign for Uyghurs (CFU), welcomed the news of the advance team’s arrival but remained doubtful about Bachelet getting unrestricted access.

“While I welcome news that the high commissioner’s visit is seemingly moving forward, I am concerned that this is another tactic to delay the release of her report on Uyghur genocide until her term expires,” CFU Executive Director Rushan Abbas said.

“Her visit is contingent on COVID restrictions, and she may spend weeks in quarantine moving from city to city, hampering her ability to investigate,” she added.