30 JUN 2019

Captain Carola Rackete was arrested in the early hours of June 29 in the Italian port of Lampedusa. Rackete, the German captain of the Dutch-flagged humanitarian rescue vessel, Sea-Watch 3, defied the imposed ban to disembark migrants saved from a rubber dinghy off the coast of Libya.

On June 12, 53 people, among them nine women, 39 men, two toddlers and three unaccompanied minors, were rescued by the Sea Watch 3. The unseaworthy rubber boat was located in international waters, about 47 nautical miles off Zawiya, Libya. Since then, the vessel Sea-Watch 3 had waited for over two weeks for a solution from the European States to disembark those rescued to a place of safety. The state of the rescued people has been fragile, and a series of medical evacuations have taken place. Doctors on board the Sea-Watch 3 posted video reports, calling the European States for assistance to allow them to disembark the remaining people to the closest place of safety.

On June 24, the German NGO also made a submission to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) requesting Italy adopt urgent interim measures that “serve to prevent serious and irremediable violations of human rights” and allow the disembarkation of the migrants. This was subsequently rejected by the Court following submissions, though the ECHR did insist that Italy “is expected to provide assistance to persons on board who are vulnerable because of their age or state of health.” On June 26, the Rackete decided to try to enter the port of Lampedusa. The Italian ports however remained closed following an Interior Ministry decree, and her act was deemed as illegal.

Criminalization and Duty

The U.K. charity Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) has released a statement saying it stands with Rackete and the crew of Sea-Watch in their considered actions to lawfully safeguard life at sea and deliver their rescued migrant passengers to a place of safety. “After over two weeks at sea and in her position in command, Rackete decided that she had no choice but to enter Italian territorial waters illegally to bring the migrants to safety,” said HRAS in a statement.

HRAS warns that Rackete’s arrest demonstrates an increase in criminalization of both humanitarian rescuers and of Captains in general for taking fair, reasonable and necessary decisions to safeguard their crew, passengers and their vessel. “The criminalization of rescuers establishes a dangerous precedent with consequences that are often kept silent. Commercial vessels operating in the same area where Sea-Watch 3 have rescued persons from drowning, though such vessels often lack crew preparedness for such rescue operations, and risk commercial and legal penalization in case of course deviation.”

Founder and Trustee, David Hammond, himself a former experienced naval officer and operational naval barrister, commented that: “It takes a certain type of person to own such a decision, take command responsibility as the Captain of a vessel and determine the fate of those entrusted to them for their personal safety and protection at sea. We deplore the arrest of this woman seafarer acting in a humanitarian capacity but understand the need to uphold the rule of law.”

In times where information, and dis-information, is rapidly spread throughout the globe, this was a call that may not be ignored, says HRAS. “People who have attempted suicide, threatening to throw themselves above board, who have been through the worst sorts of personal violence in Libya are now begging to disembark in a place of safety. Captain Rackete and her crew have been complying with their duties as per UNCLOS, SOLAS, the SAR Convention, and other customary international law principles.”

On land, the Italian Government issued a decree fining NGO SAR vessels up to €5,500 for each “migrant” they have rescued from distress disembarked in Italy. The aim is to close the Italian borders and has made Italy non-compliant with their international obligations.

“We are now living in a dangerous era was the Italian Interior Minister has chosen to distinguish who should be rescued and who should be rendered assistance,” says HRAS. This is effectively a politicized attempt at the redefining of maritime rescue operations, and the subjective defining what a “good” or “bad” rescue case is.

“Let us however be clear. When confronted with a distress case at sea, no one should be confronted with the questioning on whether or not they will be fined for this, whether this person is worth being rescued or not. Rescue at sea is a duty, and let us be reminded as the UNHCR recently stated, SAR NGO vessels are not a pull factor.

“While European States have been promoting the need for a coordinated response in regards to rescues in the Central Mediterranean Sea, while the EU Council has decided upon the need to create humanitarian disembarkation platforms over a year ago, while Libya is in a state of civil war and Tripoli is yet considered a place of safety, Sea-Watch has arguably taken a courageous moral lead to rescue those who are in distress at sea, and ensure that these persons will be taken under the responsibility of a State where they may safely apply for asylum without risking their mental or physical health.”

Hammond says: “Human rights apply at sea as equally as they do on land.”


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