GENEVA — The United Nations’ top human rights official announced Monday that she was stepping down when her term expires at the end of August, less than a month after a visit to China that drew fierce criticism from human rights groups.
Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, revealed her decision at the end of a statement opening a session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva that she said would be her last.
Ms. Bachelet, a former president of Chile who took up the United Nations’ job in 2018, had given no warning she intended to step down. After addressing the council, she told reporters she had informed the U.N. secretary general, Antonio Guterres, two months ago that she wanted to return to her family in Chile and would not seek a second term.
She had recently come under fire from rights groups outraged by her visit to China in May, the first by a U.N. human rights chief in 17 years. Critics said the visit handed a propaganda coup to Beijing by avoiding any public censure of its mass incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang and the repression of activists, lawyers and journalists in China.
“There was no condemnation from Madame Bachelet even remotely commensurate with the severity of the atrocities being committed in Xinjiang,” Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, told reporters ahead of the council session. “She gave up her most powerful weapon for a back room dialogue which will be meaningless.”
Ms. Bachelet told the Human Rights Council on Monday that she had raised concerns during her visit about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang, as well as Beijing’s policies in Tibet and Hong Kong. She also said she was committed to releasing a long-awaited report on China’s actions in Xinjiang.
The report, which has been awaiting publication since last year, is being updated, Ms. Bachelet told the council. She told reporters that she would release it before she left office.
The United Nations human rights office would continue to pursue the issue in a new annual meeting with senior Chinese officials, Ms. Bachelet said, flagging what she has said was one of the achievements of her visit and her policy of discreet engagement with Beijing.
Her report to the Human Rights Council on Monday, which reviewed global developments, expressed concerns with a wide range of countries.
It noted the horrors and destruction of the war in Ukraine, saying it would scar its population for generations, and said that Moscow’s crackdown on Russians protesting against the war on Ukraine was “worrying.”
Restrictive laws on abortion posed a threat to human rights, she said, singling out the United States among other countries. The British government’s proposed amendments to Britain’s human rights act, described by Ms. Bachelet as one of its most important human rights laws, risked limiting citizens’ access to justice, she said.
Ms. Bachelet also said that Israel should open a criminal inquiry into the death of the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. The Palestinian Authority says she was shot by an Israeli soldier; Israel says that it is still investigating her death.
Ms. Bachelet said Ms. Akleh’s death spotlighted the killings and injuries of Palestinians by Israeli forces, and warned that the “prevailing climate of impunity” was stoking violence.