New UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet. Photo: AFP
Hungary and Austria on Tuesday rejected criticism from the UN’s new human rights chief over their migration policies, accusing her of spreading “half-truths” and “baseless suspicions”.
In her maiden speech as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet on Monday told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that she was dismayed by the approach of many developed countries towards migration.
While she did not criticise the migration policies of specific countries in her oral address, she did single out Hungary and Austria among others in a longer, written version of her speech.
In particular, the former Chilean president pointed to “shocking reports” that “food has been withheld from migrants held in transit zones on the Hungarian-Serbian border.”
When the Hungarian ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Zsuzsanna Horvath, responded to Bachelet’s speech Tuesday, she told the council it was “regrettable” that her report contained “half-truths”.
She insisted that “nobody is held in transit zones in Hungary, but everybody is free to leave them.”
“Furthermore,” she said, “food has been and will continue to be supplied to people who have already submitted their refugee claims.”
In her written speech, Bachelet also took issue with measures adopted by the Hungarian government in June enabling “authorities to arrest, criminally charge and immediately remove from Hungary’s border area any lawyer, adviser, volunteer or legally resident family member suspected of helping a person to make an asylum claim, obtain a residence permit, or take other perfectly legal actions.”
Horvath underlined the government’s position that all “illegal migration must be stopped and borders have to be protected.”
“Deliberately misleading migrants in vulnerable situations is not a humanitarian act in our view,” she said.
“It is a crime that has led already to too many deaths along migration routes.”
Call for ‘meaningful dialogue’
Horvath said it was encouraging that Bachelet had vowed to “always listen to the concerns of governments”, but suggested she should have done so in this case.
“A meaningful dialogue with governments before running into early conclusions would certainly advance our common cause of promotion and protection of human rights,” she said.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz meanwhile demanded Tuesday that Bachelet clarify comments she made about his country in the written version of her speech.
In the text, Bachelet warned that “prioritising the return of migrants from Europe, without ensuring that key international human rights obligations are upheld, cannot be considered a protection response.”
She said her office planned to “dispatch a team to Austria to assess recent developments in this area.”
Speaking in Vienna, Kurz said he would defend his country against “all baseless suspicions,” insisting that migrants in Austria enjoyed better living conditions than in most countries.
Instead of taking Austria to task, the UN, he said, should focus more on “countries where torture and the death penalty are on the agenda, and where the liberties of expression, assembly and religion are violated daily.”