The serious risk caused by the italian government’s position in the Aquarius’ issue : spanish intervention does not raise Italy from its responsibilities

Press releases ASGI


At the time of writing, the case of the vessel Aquarius has not yet come to an end which will hopefully be a positive one, thanks to the intervention of Spanish authorities and despite the conduct of the Italian Government.

The welcome decision of Spain to choose solidarity and to take in charge, materially and legally, the survivors rescued by the Aquarius shall not obfuscate the serious responsibility of the Italian Government in the overall conduct of the operations.

It should be remembered that the rescue operations started at the instigation of an "SOS" issued by the MRCC ( Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre) of Rome. Therefore, in accordance with international law, Italy has always been and still is the State legally responsible for the coordination of the rescue operations.

This is the only reasonable reading of the relevant and applicable treaties, including:

 the Convention on the Safeguard of Life at Sea (SOLAS Convention, London, 1974; implemented in Italy by Law n. 313/1980);

 the International Convention on Research and Rescue at Sea (SAR Convention, Hamburg, 1979, implemented in Italy by Law n. 147/1989, and ensuing Implementing Regulation, D.P.R. n. 662/1994);

 the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Montego Bay, 1982, implemented in Italy by Law n. 689/1994).

Until Spain announced its intervention for humanitarian reasons, the IMRCC continued to refrain from indicating any destination for the Aquarius boat, breaching its specific obligations under international and domestic law and exposing people on board to risks for their life.

In light of the situation of distress and danger in which the migrants and the crew found themselves, any limitation or obstacle to access the Italian territory through ports must be considered unacceptable.

In accordance with art. 18§2 of the UNCLOS, the coastal State can not invoke a violation of the right of innocent passage or oblige the foreign ship to resume the sea.

The obligation to bring assistance and the responsibility for allowing the conclusion of the rescue on a place of safety lie primarily on the coastal State, i.e. the State whose territorial sea the ship in distress is navigating or approaching. The ship in such a situation as to cause a threat to the lives of the persons on board, regardless of the status of these passengers, enjoys a "right" to access the port.

Denying access to Italian ports to boats that have carried out the rescue at sea involves the violation of articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is applicable since Italy, by coordinating SAR operations beyond its area of jurisdiction, is nevertheless exercising elements of governmental authority in conformity with international law (v. _mutatis mutandis_, _Al-Skeini and oth. v. the United Kingdom_ and _Jaloud v. the Netherlands_).

Indeed the rescued migrants were in evident need of urgent medical care, as well as basic needs (water, food, medicines), and these needs could not be satisfied on the high seas. The conditions under which they were subjected determine the exposure of men, women, and children to inhuman and degrading conditions (in violation of Article 3 ECHR) and to a serious risk for their life (in violation of article 2 ECHR).

Some of the migrants on board of the Aquarius are asylum seekers and refugees: the Italian government’s decision to deny the access to a safe harbor to these people could amount to a breach of the principle of not refoulment, under Article 33 of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, if a safe harbor is eventually not found for them.

The principle of non-refoulment is a principle of general international law, it has customary nature and it is therefore applicable to all States. It establishes the prohibition of refoulement to any place where a person could be exposed to the risk of persecution and/or inhumane and degrading treatment, as the ones to which people on board have experienced.

Under domestic criminal law, the obligation to provide assistance is a discrete legal requirement, which cannot be disregarded.

The conduct of the MRCC in Rome is liable to be characterized as "failure to provide assistance" under art. 593 of the Italian Criminal Code. Moreover, were death or injury to derive from the delayed entry, other autonomous criminal offenses, such as murder or injuries, would be at stake.

Those conduct would be attributable to the whole chain of command, with a view of the existing legal duty to safeguard life and physical integrity which is incumbent on a State coordinating the rescue operation.

The diplomatic "arm wrestling" conducted by the Italian government with the authorities of Malta and with the EU has endangered the lives of hundreds of people and disrespected of fundamental human rights. It constitutes a very serious precedent in European history.

The Italian government could have exposed its legitimate political positions and legal arguments in in the context of the ongoing reform of the Dublin Regulation. Instead, it has chosen to pursue those positions and arguments through coercive action at the expenses of people in distress.

This demonstrates the unwillingness of the Italian Government to act constructively at the European level thus giving up its potentially prominent role in this context.

It would have been possible for the incumbent Ministry of Internal Affairs to discuss the necessity of a compulsory system for the equitable allocation of asylum seekers and refugees in the EU

While a quick and positive solution of the Aquarius case is desirable, ASGI has the well-founded fear that similar situations will repeat in the next future.

ASGI launches an appeal to all the institutions, including the Parliament, and to all the democratic forces in the country, to ensure that international and domestic law on the rescue at sea is scrupulously complied with, in order to avoid that Italy will again taint itself with undignified conducts such as those that have taken place in recent days.