Mehray Mezensof’s life came crashing down in April, when a message from a contact in China’s far northwestern region of Xinjiang confirmed her worst nightmare. The 28-year-old had been waiting for news about her husband, Mirzat Taher, who was appealing against what she believed was his trumped-up terror conviction. Taher, 31, was hauled off by Chinese authorities in 2020, a fate that befell many Uyghurs—an ethnic group who are predominantly Muslims—in their neighborhood in Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi since 2017.
Sitting at her current home in Australia, where he was supposed to join her, Mezensof trembled as she translated the text in the message word by word. It was a prison admission document that sealed his fate in black and white: Her husband, whom she described as easygoing and who ran a kebab shop, was sentenced to 25 years in prison on terrorism and separatism charges. “I just couldn’t get those words out of my head. I felt like I lost a part of myself,” Mezensof told VICE World News.
Taher is among more than a million estimated Uyghurs who have disappeared into China’s vast internment camps in Xinjiang. Beijing’s brutal crackdown on ethnic minorities in the region hold “a serious risk of genocide,” the European Parliament declared last week. Like many Uyghurs abroad who are searching for their family members back home, Mezensof had placed her hopes in Michelle Bachelet when the United Nations human rights chief in March announced her long-awaited visit to Xinjiang. “We had hoped that she would be the hero we are all seeking,” said Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur human rights lawyer based in the United States, whose brother has also been held by Chinese authorities since 2016.
To their utter disappointment, instead of seeking accountability, the UN High Commissioner appeared to endorse China’s policies in a cautious statement at the end of her mission last month, which critics say did more harm than good to the Uyghurs’ cause. As the top envoy dragged her feet on a UN report on Xinjiang, her silence has drawn new scrutiny to China’s growing influence in the UN, which experts fear is undermining the credibility of the international body itself.
“The stark reality is that the UN Human Rights officials are always working in the shadow of power,” said Richard Gowan, UN director of the Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group.
Bachelet, whose itinerary in China was tightly controlled by Beijing, did not have unhindered access for an independent review. The former president of Chile, Bachelet has defended her contentious trip as an opportunity to establish dialogues with Chinese officials. But critics, including the Biden administration, argued that by agreeing to China’s terms, Bachelet has allowed herself to be manipulated.
Her statement, delivered at a press conference in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou when her trip ended on May 28, confirmed their fears. The envoy started with lengthy praises of China’s efforts to alleviate poverty and improve gender rights. When she finally mentioned the operations in question, she framed them as law and policies to “counter terrorism and radicalism,” borrowing a term China has routinely used to justify its mass detention camps. Instead of condemning the measures, she encouraged the Chinese authorities to undertake a review to ensure they are not “applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory way.”
“Hearing her words just felt like a complete punch to the gut,” Mezensof said. “She played right into China’s hands.”
Bachelet’s statement stood in stark contrast with new evidence that came to light during her visit. Published by a media consortium, the Xinjiang Police Files is a trove of information allegedly obtained by hackers from law enforcement servers that includes police reports and briefings and speeches by Chinese officials. The revelations added to mounting evidence of China’s repression of Uyghurs in the region, which goes far beyond extralegal confinement—the only aspect addressed by Bachelet. It includes forced labor, child separation, and forced birth control, as revealed by satellite images, government documents, and testimonies from survivors. State documents from the files also lend weight to the conclusion that the orders came from the top of the Chinese Communist Party, said James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University who studies Chinese and Central Asian history.
Most unsettling among the leaked files were the photographs of thousands of detainees from one county of the Kashgar prefecture in Xinjiang alone, where 12.1 percent of all ethnic adults were behind bars in 2018. Many were arrested on dubious terrorism charges merely for practicing their religion and listening to scriptures. “By adopting the People’s Republic of China’s talking points, Michelle Bachelet has muddied the waters,” Millward said. “Anyone who looks at those pictures, particularly of small children, would realize that this is not about counter terrorism. Rather it is a massive collective punishment on Uyghur people.”
Rian Thum, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester who studies the history of Muslims in China, called Bachelet’s trip a “propaganda victory” for the Chinese government. Thum and Millward are among 38 scholars that signed a joint letter last week urging Bachelet to incorporate their findings and release her report on Xinjiang “without political interference or further delay.”
In a motion passed by a landslide margin on Thursday, the European Parliament expressed regrets that Bachelet failed to clearly hold the Chinese government accountable for its abuses and weighed in on calls for the envoy to immediately publish her findings. On Friday, more than 40 UN experts and special rapporteurs issued a joint letter, urging China to grant full access to independent experts and renewing calls for the Human Rights Council to convene a special session on China.
In a statement to VICE World News on Thursday, the UN Human Rights office said the report is being updated and will be shared with the Chinese government for comments before it is published. It does not have an updated timeline. The office also acknowledged the in-depth research many academics and others have undertaken on Xinjiang. “We have taken into account relevant information in making our own assessment of the human rights situation,” it wrote.
Before her recent trip in May, Bachelet first said in September last year her office was finalizing its assessment on the allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang with a view to making it public. While it is well known that the UN can slow pedal politically sensitive reports for long periods—and even middle powers such as Saudi Arabia have successfully intervened in UN writing processes to remove criticisms—the report has been stalled for so long it is turning into a scandal, Gowan said. “If she doesn’t use this moment to put the report out, it will look like she is once again ducking a challenge to China,” he added.
Dozens of human rights groups have demanded Bachelet’s resignation in a public letter last week, accusing her of “whitewashing the Chinese government’s human rights atrocities.”
Given all the signs, few at this point expect Bachelet to deliver a highly critical report, but it remains an important text for Uyghurs who are building their case. “For all its weaknesses, a report from the UN still carries a degree of credence internationally that very few other reports can carry,” Gowan said.
Despite the broad consensus among scholars and human rights groups on the scale and gravity of China’s crackdown on ethnic minorities, it remains a subjective issue in the UN world. China has constantly dismissed criticisms from the West as a plot to hinder its development and contain its rise. Although Washington designated China’s repression of Uyghurs as a genocide in July last year, the context of the move lessened its impact. “When it’s done by an outgoing Trump administration essentially as a final fuck you gesture to China, that doesn’t resonate very well with countries in Latin America or Africa,” Gowan said.
“It’s ultimately a crisis where the structure of power in the UN system makes it impossible for the UN to act meaningfully.”
Large swathes of the world, including many Muslim states, have not voiced any objection to China’s actions in Xinjiang. Some international companies, including Tesla, have shrugged off concerns of forced labor and continued to operate in the region. German car manufacturer Volkswagen has recently defended its presence by dismissing the Xinjiang Police Files as “desktop-only” research. A damning UN report could be the turning point Uyghurs need to turn the tide.
More concerning, however, is the power play inside the UN system, where China has used its clout to rally other member states in the General Assembly to its side. In 2019, shortly after 22 countries, including Australia and Canada, condemned China’s treatment of Uyghurs in a letter to the UN Human Rights Council, China responded with a counter-letter, where 37 states, including Russia, North Korea, and Syria, endorsed its policies. “The common denominator among those signatories was their own atrocious human rights record,” Millward said. “It’s quite ironic given that China often rejects what it calls the rules-based international order, it’s now very keenly using certain international organizations to promote its message.”
There are many vulnerability points across the international organization, which China could leverage to exert influence. For one, there is suspicion that Bachelet would be interested in succeeding António Guterres as UN Secretary General. “If this process ends up with her fundamentally out of favor with China, then China can always veto her selection as a Secretary General,” Gowan said. In addition, it could use its diplomatic strength to cut off financing to UN activities or block the reform efforts that Gutierrez was leading. Her office did not respond directly to a question on whether she intends to seek a second term after her mandate ends in August.
“It’s ultimately a crisis where the structure of power in the UN system makes it impossible for the UN to act meaningfully,” Gowan said.
“What is fundamentally broken about the UN is that powerful countries like China were able to shape the rules at the UN for the past few years, and just buy the silence of the vast majority of countries,” said Asat, who is also a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, the Washington-based think tank.
For instance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having denounced China’s treatment of Uyghurs as early as 2009, has in recent years abandoned public criticism of China’s policies and cracked down on local Uyghur activists as Turkey strengthened economic ties with China. Similarly, Pakistan, which received billions in loans from China, has also looked the other way when it comes to Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang across the border, even though its leader, Imran Khan, frequently speaks out against Islamophobia in the West.
“If we’re not vigilant about it, I’m worried that the entire UN system would totally undermine its own credibility because you’re creating a system that is only applicable for smaller states when it comes to human rights,” Asat said.
Ironically, the UN’s failure to hold China accountable could serve its own purpose. As people have been waiting for years for it to act, if the report turns out to be a damp squib, it could take away the possibility of counting on the international organization and galvanize coalitions of countries or civil society into action, Gowan said.
As for Mezensof, this faint silver lining is the hope that keeps her going, no matter how frustrated she is with each setback. “I will try to do everything I possibly can to make a difference,” she said. “At the end of the day, I am the only one who can be a voice for my husband.”