Francesco Messineo is lecturer at Kent Law School, Canterbury.
Given the relative lack of media hype (with notable exceptions, see also here), readers may have missed the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s scathing report on the ‘left-to-die boat’ in the Mediterranean. On 27 March 2011, during the UN-authorized NATO military operations in Libya (see UNSCR 1973(2011)), a dinghy with 72 migrants (some of whom children) was making its way from Tripoli to Lampedusa when it run into difficulties for lack of fuel and food/water supplies. The ‘captain’ of the dinghy contacted a priest in Italy who swiftly alerted the Guardia Costiera (Coast Guard). The Italian authorities informed NATO of the coordinates of the ship in distress and sent repeated ‘ship in distress’ messages to all nearby vessels via satellite. An unidentified helicopter offered water and biscuits to the migrants and an unidentified warship passed very close nearby. Fishermen vessels also passed nearby. Spanish and Italian military vessels were apparently within easy reach. Yet no one rescued the migrants – and 63 of them died before the dinghy was brought by currents back to a city in Libya, after two weeks from their departure.
The United Nations estimates that at least 1,500 migrants died at sea in 2011 alone, but something is particularly harrowing about this case. The Italian government, the Spanish government, NATO (which had established a ‘maritime surveillance area’) and other countries knew the location of the dinghy, knew what the situation was, but omitted to intervene and effectively left 63 people to die of hunger and thirst in a portion of sea otherwise crowded with military and other ships (some of which precisely in charge of protecting the Libyan civilian population).
Among the many maritime borders and delimitations in the Mediterranean sea, one of the most important ones is the Search And Rescue (SAR) areas established under the International Maritime Search and Rescue Convention (1405 UNTS 118, as amended). Although this incident took place in the Libyan SAR, the Italian government, which had first received information about the distress, was probably under an obligation to coordinate a rescue operation. In fact, the Italian government today acknowledged its responsibility for the events. Minister Riccardi said that the government ‘accepts responsibility for this’, adding that these facts had ‘touched [him] very much’ and that they must provoke a rethinking of migration policies. The legal consequences of this acceptance of responsibility are important: Italy should now immediately proceed to compensate the survivors and the families of the victims for the suffering caused by Italy’s breach of its international obligations. Although commendable, ministerial apologies are certainly not enough.