Michelle Bachelet should know better. Much, much better.
As the daughter of a dissident who suffered under a dictator, as a doctor, as a democrat, and as the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, she ought to know her role is to speak truth to power, to shine a spotlight on injustice and to be a moral conscience for the world.
As a child, she saw Chile’s military dictator Augusto Pinochet jail and torture her father, who died from a heart attack as a consequence. She and her mother were also detained and tortured. She then spent four years in exile. Surely that experience would have informed her conscience?
As the democratically elected president of Chile, she opened a Museum of Memory and Human Rights, documenting the horrors of Pinochet’s 16-and-a-half-year dictatorship. In November 2009, she created Chile’s first National Institute for Human Rights to promote and defend human rights in her country.
Yet in her engagement with China, it is as if all that was forgotten.
For four years, ever since she took up her UN post, Bachelet has navigated a very strange dance with Beijing. As one senior official in Geneva told me when I visited in April, she seems to have confused the role of a high commissioner — which is to be a watchdog, a spotlight, and a moral conscience to call out human rights violations around the world — with that of a politician and diplomat. In her moral confusion, she sold her soul.
She did not just kowtow to the brutal Chinese Communist Party — she fell prostrate and barely raised her head, let alone her voice. Her tongue was licking the boots of Xi Jinping’s henchmen instead of speaking truth to power
For much of her term in office, she has focused on negotiating a visit to China. Civil society activists cannot complain that she went last month because we, after all, have been demanding access for her, especially to Xinjiang, the region where the regime is increasingly accused of genocide. But we can and should complain about the timing, nature, and outcome of her visit.
First, she has delayed the release of a long-awaited report on Xinjiang by her office. Viewing that decision charitably, perhaps that delay was understandable in order to secure her visit. Had she released the report before visiting China, the regime most likely would have pulled the visit. But it now begs several questions. What did the visit achieve and was it worth it? Why not release the report now? What excuse can there be for the further delay?
Bachelet’s visit took place at a time when China is enduring renewed Covid-19 restrictions, giving the regime the perfect excuse to limit her movements. While even at the best of times no one would have expected her to have full and unfettered access to Xinjiang’s hundreds of prison camps, traveling under the cover of Covid meant she saw next to nothing of the truth of the regime’s atrocities.
Two weeks ago, Bachelet announced she would not seek a second term as high commissioner. Perhaps that was because almost a month ago, at the end of her controversial visit to China, she gave one of the most shocking press conferences of any visiting official to Beijing ever. She did not just kowtow to the brutal Chinese Communist Party — she fell prostrate and barely raised her head, let alone her voice. Her tongue was licking the boots of Xi Jinping’s henchmen instead of speaking truth to power.
In that press conference, Bachelet parroted the Beijing regime’s language about “counter-terrorism” and “deradicalization”, praised China’s role in “multilateralism” and trumpeted the Chinese Communist Party’s achievements in eradicating poverty. She turned into a Beijing quisling, what Lenin once called a “useful idiot”, played skillfully by Xi Jinping.
Her press statement was Orwellian in its propaganda speak. She spoke at length of universal health care and “almost universal” unemployment insurance, and commended China for promoting gender equality, but said nothing of well-documented and systematic sexual violence, forced sterilization, forced abortions, human trafficking, torture, crimes against humanity, and genocide. She spoke of labor rights but stayed silent about rampant slave labor. And unfathomably, she praised Chinese business for “embracing human rights standards” while they continue to use forced labor in their production lines and supply chains.
She failed to refer to the judgment of the Uyghur Tribunal — chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the man who prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic — which concluded that the Uyghurs are facing genocide and crimes against humanity, as has the United States administration and the parliaments of several countries.
Did she not notice the arrest earlier this month of Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen, internationally renowned barrister Margaret Ng and popular singer Denise Ho?
Most bizarre was her reference to meeting “civil society organizations, academics and community, and religious leaders.” I wonder who they would have been, given that most civil society groups in China have been shut down, most academics have been shut up and many religious and community leaders have been locked up.
Her remarks on Hong Kong and Tibet were laughable. On Hong Kong, she said it is “important that the government there does all it can to nurture — and not to stifle — the tremendous potential for civil society and academics” to contribute to “the promotion and protection of human rights.”
What is she smoking? Has she not read the draconian national security law, or seen the arrests of dozens of activists, jailed without bail, the closure of over 50 civil society groups, the shutdown of almost all independent media, and the crackdown on press freedom over the past two years? Did she not notice the arrest earlier this month of Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen, internationally-renowned barrister Margaret Ng and popular singer Denise Ho?
Bachelet’s visit coincided with the release of the Xinjiang Police Files, a major cache of leaked official documents, speeches, and images providing a groundbreaking inside view of the camps in Xinjiang. Yet she made no reference to this evidence. She also ignored repeated statements by the UN’s own special rapporteurs, who have expressed their alarm at the repression of fundamental freedoms in China. And she failed to heed the judgment of the China Tribunal into forced organ harvesting, which concluded that China is committing crimes against humanity and that anyone engaging with the Chinese state should be aware that they are “interacting with a criminal state.”
The best rebuke to Bachelet’s idiotic shenanigans in China is the appointment of Nury Turkel as the new chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a body created, mandated, and funded by the US Congress to monitor religious freedom around the world. Nury’s appointment is historic: he is an Uyghur and he was born in a re-education camp in China. His story is powerfully told in his new book, No Escape. Bachelet should have read his book before going to China. She should have spoken to people like Nury before embarking on her visit. Her failure to listen will be the tombstone of her legacy.
That Bachelet is not seeking a second term is welcome news. She jumped before being pushed. She brought shame on her office, which was held previously by distinguished human rights champions such as Navy Pillay, who initiated calls for a UN inquiry into crimes against humanity in North Korea, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who called for an International Criminal Court probe into the atrocity crimes suffered by Myanmar’s Rohingya, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who served only briefly having previously served in Cambodia and Timor-Leste and subsequently in Iraq where he was murdered, former Canadian jurist Louise Arbour and former Irish president Mary Robinson, who served with distinction.
While there may have been moments when some of the above might have disappointed, there were not moments when one was left with the feeling that they had sold out. Bachelet will go down in history for that.
When Beijing’s stooge Antonio Guterres finishes his term, let us have a secretary-general who embodies, believes and champions the values of the UN rather than one beholden to a Beijing slush fund
As Bachelet prepares to leave, there are three hopes I have.
The first is that she finally releases her report and that her report might give us something to work with.
The second is that her successor might be someone who could pick up the pieces and rebuild the credibility of the office of high commissioner, as someone who believes in human rights and is prepared to stand up and fight for them.
And the third is that she does not resurrect herself, Lazarus-like, as a candidate for UN secretary-general with Beijing’s backing, which is the rumor lurking in the background. God help us if she does.
One final thought: when Beijing’s stooge Antonio Guterres, who has been the biggest disappointment as UN secretary-general in recent history for his invisibility and failure to rise to the crises in Myanmar, North Korea, Hong Kong, Tibet, the Uyghurs, and beyond, finishes his term, let us have a secretary-general who embodies, believes and champions the values of the UN rather than one beholden to a Beijing slush fund.
Maybe we could have a pope who stands up for Catholic social teaching too — but one step at a time.