By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) – Italy sharply criticised new U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday after she announced she would send investigators to the country to check reports of racism and violence against migrants.
Hours after Bachelet made her inaugural speech in Geneva on Monday, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the anti-immigrant League party, threatened to cut Italian funding for the United Nations.
On Tuesday, the foreign ministry issued a long statement describing Bachelet’s accusations as “inappropriate, unfounded, unjust”.
Bachelet criticised the government, which is made up of the League and the populist 5-Star Movement, for refusing entry to migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean operated by private charities.
“This kind of political posturing and other recent developments have devastating consequences for many already vulnerable people,” said Bachelet, a former Chilean president.
Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister, has insisted that ships run by non-government organisations should not be allowed to dock in Italian ports. Migrants aboard Italian military ships should not disembark either unless other European Union countries agree to take some in, he has said.
But what riled Salvini and the foreign ministry most was Bachelet’s announcement that she would “send staff to Italy, to assess the reported sharp increase in acts of violence and racism against migrants, persons of African descent and Roma”.
Last March, African immigrants and Italians protested in Florence and criticised the League, accusing the party of stoking racial tensions after an Italian man shot dead a Senegalese street vendor.
A month earlier, a man with neo-Nazi sympathies and ties to the League opened fire on African migrants in the city of Macerata, wounding six before he was captured.
Salvini, who in the past has threatened to cut off Rome’s contributions to the EU budget, said on Monday night that Italy and other European countries should consider cutting funding to the U.N., saying it should not try to “teach Italians lessons”.
Human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that it was “not unusual at all” to send teams to countries and that one had already visited Italy in 2016.
The foreign ministry statement rejected “presumed negligence by Italy in the area of human rights of migrants”, saying it had for years borne much of the responsibility for saving thousands of lives in the Mediterranean.
Italy became the main route into Europe for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers arriving by sea since the other main route from Turkey to Greece was largely shut in 2016.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, editing by John Stonestreet, Larry King and David Stamp)