GENEVA — The new U.N. human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, on Monday announced plans to send teams to Italy and Austria to examine the treatment of migrants, drawing a quick retort from Vienna and Rome after her first big appearance in the job.
Both governments take a hard line on migration. The rebuttals from two key Europe Union states — Austria now holds the rotating EU presidency — suggested Bachelet is already ruffling governmental feathers after becoming High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sept. 1.
A former Chilean president who was once a political detainee herself, Bachelet said that "prioritizing the return of migrants from Europe, without ensuring that key international human rights obligations are upheld, cannot be considered a protection response."
Bachelet said her office expects to dispatch a team to Austria to "assess recent developments in this area," and also send staff to Italy to "assess the reported sharp increase in acts of violence and racism against migrants, persons of African descent and Roma."
She didn't say when either team would travel, or give other details in a written statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council, posted on her office's website , in which she also called on the European Union to set up a dedicated search and rescue operation for people crossing the Mediterranean Sea. She didn't mention sending teams to Austria and Italy in shorter oral remarks to the council in Geneva.
On Facebook, Italian Foreign Minister Matteo Salvini insisted that his country has been largely forced to manage an influx of refugees and migrants to Europe on its own and suggested — like Austria's leader — that the United Nations should focus its attention elsewhere.
"Before carrying out checks on Italy, the U.N. should investigate its own member states that ignore basic rights such as freedom and parity between men and women," he wrote.
"Italy in the last years has accepted 700,000 immigrants, many of them clandestine, and has never received the collaboration of other European countries," he added. "We therefore do not accept lessons from anyone, let alone from the U.N."
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that he welcomed Bachelet's announcement as offering an "opportunity to rectify prejudices and deliberate false information about Austria," the Austria Press Agency reported.
Kurz said in a statement that "living conditions for migrants" in Austria are among the best in the world and added that Austria had taken in some of the highest numbers of migrants per capita in Europe.
"We hope that, after this examination, the U.N. will again have time and resources to dedicate to those countries where torture and the death penalty are on the agenda and the freedom of opinion, the press, assembly and religion are trampled on," Kurz said.
The conservative leader added that the check was ordered by a "former socialist politician and member of the Socialist International." Bachelet served two terms as Chile's president, the last of which ended earlier this year.