The US State Department on Friday expressed concern about an upcoming visit by the United Nations rights chief to the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, warning that restrictions by Beijing could make a thorough investigation into alleged rights abuses there impossible.
"We're deeply concerned about the upcoming visit," US State Department spokesman Ned Price said of the planned trip by Michelle Bachelet, the UN's high commissioner for human rights.
"We have no expectation that the (People's Republic of China) will grant the necessary access required to conduct a complete, unmanipulated assessment of the human rights environment in Xinjiang," Price said. "The high commissioner, we believe, must act, and be allowed to act, independently. And the high commissioner must report objectively and factually on the human rights situation."
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Bachelet is scheduled to travel to China next week, the first official visit to the country by a UN rights chief since 2005.
The landmark visit will include stops in the cities of Urumqi and Kashgar in Xinjiang, where rights groups, witnesses and some governments have accused the Chinese government of carrying out a far-reaching crackdown on Uygurs and other ethnic minority groups.
The US government has categorised the Chinese government's actions in Xinjiang as "genocide" and crimes against humanity, citing allegations of forced labour and the mass detention of some one million Uygurs.
China has denied the allegations and portrayed the criticism as attempts to interfere in its internal affairs.
Price's comments add to a growing chorus of concern among Western nations that the visit will be a tightly controlled affair in which the Chinese government could dictate the amount of access Bachelet's team is granted to sites within Xinjiang.
The comments coincided with a warning issued Friday by some 40 lawmakers around the world that the credibility of Bachelet's office "could suffer lasting damage" if it failed to secure necessary access for a "meaningful investigation".
"Covid restrictions must not be deployed as a reason to excuse the PRC for failing to allow a meaningful investigation," said the group of legislators from 18 countries known as the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.
Earlier this month, a coalition of more than 220 rights groups appealed to Bachelet's office to postpone her visit, citing the risk of "walking into a propaganda minefield laid out by the Chinese Communist Party".
Those campaigners also accused Bachelet of failing to meet with any members of the Uygur community or related civil society groups during her time in office "despite multiple requests".
Bachelet's office did not immediately respond to questions regarding that allegation or Price's comments.
And the Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to questions concerning the degree to which Bachelet's team would be free to determine her itinerary. In December, Beijing's mission to the UN characterised the then-unscheduled trip as a "friendly visit" and said it should not be considered an "'investigation' under the presumption of guilt".
Even before concerns were raised by the US and others about the circumstances of the upcoming trip, Bachelet had faced mounting criticism about the delayed release of a long-anticipated UN report into alleged rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The UN said in December that the report would be issued in a matter of "weeks".
"Despite frequent assurances by her office that the report would be released in short order, it remains unavailable to us, and we call on the high commissioner to release the report without delay and not to wait for the visit to do so," Price said on Friday.
The UN has said it has identified patterns of arbitrary detention, coerced labour and broader infringements on civil liberties in Xinjiang. But Price said Bachelet herself had remained silent "in the face of indisputable evidence of atrocities in Xinjiang and other human rights violations and abuses throughout the PRC".
"It is deeply concerning, particularly as she is and should be the leading UN voice on human rights." Price said.
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