Vladimir Voronkov, a Russian diplomat who heads the United Nations Counterterrorism Office, is set to the Xinjiang region in western China, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday. While saying Voronkov was in China, UN officials would not confirm whether the visit would bring him to the Xinjiang region.
In China at the country's invitation, Beijing has planned an itinerary for the counterterrorism chief, whose office helps countries implement a global counterterrorism strategy adopted by the UN General Assembly.
The United States, Britain and other Western countries have objected to Voronkov's visit to Xinjiang, where UN experts say some 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims are being held in detention centers.
US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan called UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday "to convey deep concerns" about the Russian diplomat's visit, according to the US State Department. Sullivan said, "Beijing continues to paint its repressive campaign against Uighurs and other Muslims as legitimate counterterrorism efforts when it is not."
"Such a visit is highly inappropriate in view of the unprecedented repression campaign underway in Xinjiang against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims," the US State Department said in a statement.
When counterterrorism trumps human rights
If the visit goes ahead, Voronkov will be in Xinjiang before UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, who has pushed China for permission to carry out a fact-finding mission regarding reports of disappearances and arbitrary detentions in the region.
Voronkov's office insists that his mission "is not connected in any manner to upcoming visits by other senior UN officials, including the High Commissioner of Human Rights," according to Reuters news agency.
Human Rights Watch criticized the UN for sending a counterterrorism official instead of a human rights expert to Xinjiang. The rights group said the UN risks deflecting attention from what it called "a massive government rights violation against the Turkic Muslim population."
China's ambassador in Geneva said on Thursday that he hoped Bachelet would visit his country, including Xinjiang. "We hope to define a time which is convenient to both sides."
China has faced international criticism over the internment camps in Xinjiang, which the government insists are vocational training centers that are necessary to curb religious extremism.