Outgoing United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet gives a final press conference at the United Nations offices in Geneva on August 25, 2022. - Bachelet faces pressure to release a long-delayed report on the situation in the Xinjiang region, where Beijing stands accused of detaining more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities -- charges it vehemently denies. She has vowed the report will be released before she steps down, at the end of the month. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

It is an explosive text. The report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights deals with alleged torture, re-education, rape, slavery and killings in China. “We are working on the report,” said High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet. This confirmation is necessary because reports of the repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region have long been delayed.

It should now be published on August 31st. On this day Bachelet will leave her office in Geneva after four years. The publication of the explosive text above would be one of her final acts, an event that would define her legacy as the UN’s top guardian of human rights. This would save her credibility, since those in power in Beijing are exerting massive political pressure on Bachelet. She should continue to keep the report under wraps.

Bachelet had actually envisaged a second term as High Commissioner. But the Chilean ex-president stumbled over her dealings with China. The 70-year-old decided not to extend her contract with the United Nations until 2026 – and thus avoided the humiliation that her contract would not be renewed. The most powerful UN member country, the USA, blocked the South American from being nominated again.

Even independent human rights experts have a hard time with Bachelet’s dealings with China: too naive, too lenient, too lax. The outgoing head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, judged Bachelet’s actions simply as “disastrous”.

The long wait for the publication of the Uyghur report triggered violent shaking of the head. Bachelet had assured the UN Human Rights Council in September 2021 that the report would be completed. Their communications team reiterated in December 2021 and again in January 2022 that the study would be out within a few weeks. When Bachelet announced her departure in June 2022, she was forced to address the issue again: the document would be available until the end of her term.

There were many explanations for the hesitation. Sometimes the High Commissioner said the situation had to be analyzed thoroughly, sometimes it was procedural issues, sometimes official China’s comments had to be taken into account.

But the continued comfort and delay caused a bad suspicion to germinate. Does the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights want to cover up what is happening in China’s camps? Or did Bachelet buckle before the rulers of the Middle Kingdom?

Bachelet’s visit to China in May of this year was just as controversial as the handling of the Uyghur report. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the mission as “worrying”. A full and independent assessment of the situation in the country, including in Xinjiang, where “genocide and crimes against humanity” are taking place has been impossible.

Beate Rudolf, director of the German Institute for Human Rights, emphasizes to the Tagesspiegel that the visit “was basically good”. However, “the government in Beijing really presented the high commissioner and Bachelet partly adopted Beijing’s language rules”. Bachelet did not clearly condemn the oppression of minorities. “That was definitely a big omission,” Rudolf makes clear.

Bachelet’s actions towards China seem strange, especially against the background of her own biography. In the 1970s, the young medical student Bachelet suffered under Chile’s military dictatorship. She even ended up in a torture prison. She managed to escape to the GDR, and later she worked her way up the political hierarchy in her home country.

Bachelet now shares the fate of other former High Commissioners. They had to leave after one term. So far, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has not yet settled the Bachelet successor. It is possible that the position will initially only be filled temporarily – an oppressive prospect in times of conflict and increasingly authoritarian government systems.