U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Friday he is "determined" that his human rights chief should conduct a "credible" visit to China's semi-autonomous Xinjiang province, where ethnic Uyghur and Turkic Muslim minorities live.
"It is in the interest of China -- if they are convinced that they are not doing what people accuse them to do -- it is in the interest of China to have a credible visit of the high commissioner, and we will be doing everything we can to make sure that it happens," Guterres said. "If it won't happen, of course the high commissioner will take the decisions that correspond to her mandate."
The U.N. chief made the remarks in Germany at the Munich Security Conference, in response to a question from the conference chairman, Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has been trying to negotiate a visit to Xinjiang for the past three years. Chinese officials said recently that she would be allowed to come to have an exchange, but not an investigation. Beijing denies it violates the rights of Uyghurs and says it is combating terrorism.
Rights groups and the U.S. government accuse Beijing of serious abuses of Uyghur rights, including torture, forced sterilization, sexual violence and forced separation of children. They are subjected to widespread surveillance and more than a million Uyghurs have been sent to detention camps.
China has dismissed the accusations as groundless and says Xinjiang enjoys stability, development and prosperity. Beijing has also lashed out at other nations for interfering in its internal affairs.
Guterres visited Beijing earlier this month as a guest of the International Olympic Committee for the opening ceremony of the Winter Games. He also had a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during which his spokesman said he told them he expects the government to allow a "credible visit" for Bachelet.
"What I have been telling the Chinese authorities, and I'm telling publicly, is that in Xinjiang human rights must be fully respected, but not only human rights must be fully respected, policies must guarantee that the identity – the cultural and religious identity of minorities is respected -- and at the same time they have opportunities to be part of the society as a whole," the secretary-general said in Munich.
Human Rights Watch welcomed the U.N. chief's remarks.
"These are Guterres' strongest remarks on the human rights crisis in Xinjiang to date," Human Rights Watch U.N. Director Louis Charbonneau told VOA. "Obviously a "credible" visit by the high commissioner has to mean unfettered and unmanaged access in Xinjiang, which the secretary-general clearly recognizes."
Charbonneau noted that the Chinese government has not yet been willing to grant that.
"The Chinese have said they've maintained a clear and consistent position, and there are no signs of change of heart in Beijing," he said. "But whether or not the high commissioner visits China, she should publish her long-delayed report on Xinjiang immediately. There's no reason to keep denying member states her office's assessment of the massive and widespread human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which we at Human Rights Watch have determined amount to crimes against humanity."
A report on the situation of the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities has been expected from Bachelet's office for some time, but so far it has not come out.