Press release: Hundreds of NGOs and individuals call for the revocation of Libya's maritime search and rescue zone


London, 29 June 2020 - The civil liberties organisation Statewatch has today delivered an open letter [1] with hundreds of signatories to Mr Kitack Lim, Secretary-General of International Maritime Organization (IMO), calling on him to revoke the Libyan maritime search and rescue (SAR) zone [2] in order to prevent the so-called Libyan Coast Guard undertaking 'pull-backs' of migrants to Libya, where they face violence, abuse and mistreatment.

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The letter, drafted by Statewatch and Osservatorio Solidarietà [3] demands that the Libyan SAR zone, which was declared in December 2017 and has been operative since mid-2018, be struck off from international records for five key reasons:

  • the country cannot be considered a safe port in which to disembark people, a requirement of international law;
  • the Libyan Coast Guard and the Libyan Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre do not have the requisite capabilities to conduct operations of their own accord, often relying on the technical assets of the EU and/or its member states, in particular Malta and Libya, to coordinate operations;
  • the Libyan Coast Guard's membership includes persons identified as being or having links with human traffickers and its missions frequently involve ill-treatment of those 'rescued';
  • the IMO's declaratory procedure, which allows states to claim a SAR zone unless other state parties object, has been used to undermine fundamental principles such as the right to life and the duty to assist in rescues at sea, with EU member states relinquishing their duties in pursuit of immigration policy goals;
  • the existence of a Libyan SAR zone is being used to criminalise NGOs in order to prevent them undertaking rescues in Libyan waters and bringing people to genuine ports of safety in the EU.

This letter supports a submission made to the IMO in March 2020 by the NGOs Comitato Nuovi Desaparecidos del Mediterraneo, Progetto Diritti and Open Arms, to which the IMO has still not responded. [4]

More than 200 individuals and over 70 associations, groups and networks (some of which represent dozens of civil society organisations) from Europe, North Africa and beyond have signed the letter. 14 MEPs from nine Member States (Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden) and three groups in the European Parliament (European United Left/Nordic Green Left, Socialists & Democrats and Greens/European Free Alliance) have given their support to the initiative. [5]

The European Commission formally recognises that Libya is unsafe for migrants, as certified by national and international courts, as well as UN agencies (UNHCR, IOM), special rapporteurs and experts on human rights. However, in practice, the Commission cooperates with EU member states and third-country governments and agencies to engineer a context that results in death at sea or returns to Libyan camps, where torture, mistreatment and other human rights abuses are rife, as the outcome of attempted sea crossings.

Yasha Maccanico, a researcher for Statewatch, said:

"The Libyan SAR zone makes a mockery of the law of the sea. It allows other states to relinquish their responsibilities under international law and subordinates human rights, the right to life and the prohibition of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment to the EU's restrictive migration policy approach. The IMO needs to stand up to states misusing procedures for instrumental purposes, for the sake of the international legal system as a whole."


Yasha Maccanico, Statewatch, yasha [at]

Lorella Beretta, Osservatorio Solidarietà della Carta di Milano, cartamilanosolidarieta [at]


[1] The open letter can be found here. It is available in PDF format, with the signatories as of the time of delivery, here. It remains open for signatures.

[2] The 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, for which the IMO is the responsible body, is designed to ensure that "no matter where an accident occurs, the rescue of persons in distress at sea will be co-ordinated by a SAR organization and, when necessary, by co-operation between neighbouring SAR organizations." It requires that rescued persons be taken to a place of safety. More information is available here.

[3] Statewatch is a non-profit-making voluntary group founded in 1991 comprised of lawyers, academics, journalists, researchers and community activists. Its European network of contributors is drawn from 18 countries. Statewatch encourages the publication of investigative journalism and critical research in Europe in the fields of the state, justice and home affairs, civil liberties, accountability and openness. Website:

Osservatorio Solidarietà is a group of activists, journalists, jurists, citizens acting in solidarity, members of NGOs and associations. Its goal is to identify and criticise political, media and legislative attempts to discredit and oppose initiatives to act in solidarity. Website:

[4] A first letter to the IMO was sent by Comitato Nuovi Desaparecidos, Progetto Diritti and Open Arms. See: Emiliano Drudi, Esposto all'IMO per demolire l'alibi della zona SAR libica, Tempi Moderni, 31 March 2020. It was reported on in English here.

[5] The full list of signatories at the time of delivery can be found attached to the letter (pdf).

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