Italy: Ports closed to rescue ships: appeal to the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe


Translation of a letter originally published by Médécins sans Frontieres, Mediterranea Saving Humans, Open Arms and Sea Watch, organisations that have vessels operating in search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean on 11 April 2020.

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Original available here (Twitter, link).

To the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe

Object: To notify [the Commissioner] of the decree of 7 April 2020 issued by the Infrastructures and Transport Minister in concertation with the Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister, the Interior Affairs Minister and the Health minister concerning denial of a place of safety (POS) to vessels that do not fly an Italian flag due to the Covid-19 emergency.

Dear Mrs. Commissioner,

Médécins sans Frontieres, Mediterranea Saving Humans, Open Arms and Sea Watch, organisations that have vessels operating in search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean, address you to notify that, due to the current medical emergency, the Italian authorities have established that Italy will not grant a POS to people rescued at sea by vessels that do not fly an Italian flag, in an inter-ministerial decree on 7 April 2020.

The premise for the decree is that a possible landing would represent an unsustainable burden for the national health system, which has already been saturated by the Covid-19 emergency, exposing the population to a risk of contagion and would distract public order forces from their priority tasks to monitor compliance with restrictions to freedom of movement.

We are very concerned by the decisions that have been adopted, that appear devoid of any logical or empirical foundation, widely discriminatory and entirely disproportionate in relation to their stated objectives, as well as clearly contravening international treaties and, in particular, the Convention [ECHR] which the decree nonetheless evokes.

In reality, it is hard to comprehend how a merely hypothetical matter - the possible presence of infected people on board - can be used to infer, in a general and abstract way, that there is a current and concrete threat to the national public wellbeing, nor does it seem acceptable that such a relevant measure that is liable to affect the fundamental rights of people rescued at sea guaranteed by the Convention's articles 2 and 3 may be adopted on purely preventative grounds.

Furthermore, neither are any reasons provided to impede the application, in case of landings, of the same preventative protocols that apply to citizens arriving from abroad. In truth, such measures appear to fully satisfy the requirements that have been listed and they are also compatible with equally important concerns for the safeguard of fundamental rights of people who have been rescued.

Moreover, the mindless discrimination enacted between ships flying an Italian flag and ships flying a foreign flag is also surprising and a cause for concern.

This distinction, which cannot have any relevance regarding containment of a threat, appears to be the umpteenth construct to discourage and obstruct NGO ships that are active in search and rescue operations at sea and to stop rescued refugees accessing procedures for international protection in Italy, while giving rise to an intolerable discrimination between rescued individuals and even between rescuers.

For these reasons, we strongly criticise what is happening today to the German boat Alan Kurdi, operating for the German Sea Eye NGO, which has saved 150 people at sea in a situation of great vulnerability, including minors and women who have undergone atrocious violence and serious and systematic human rights violations in Libya. They have escaped a country that, even today, is torn apart by a bloody war and entirely lacks the means to tackle a healthcare emergency, but they are denied a POS by Italian authorities due to the aforementioned principle of the flag a vessel is flying.

These decisions, and the entire construct of the previous inter-ministerial decree of 7 April 2020, are thus shown to be deeply prejudicial to the fundamental rights of the people rescued at sea. On this point, it is worth recalling that art. 15 of the Convention does not allow, even in emergency situations, to derogate from norms on the right to life, the prohibition of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment, and that these are precisely the rights that are most at risk for the people fleeing war in Libya.

We end by asking the Commissioner to intervene within the scope of her competences for the purpose of clarifying that the rights of people rescued at sea must be guaranteed regardless of what vessel saves them and, especially, that no derogations are possible in that context, and that there are no margins for balancing the duty to indicate a POS.

Signed by:

Claudio Lodesani, President of MSF Italy
Alessandra Sciurba, President of Mediterranea Saving Humans
Johannes Bajer, President of Sea Watch
Riccardo Gatti, President of Open Arms Italy

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