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The Aquarius incident: navigating the turbulent waters of international law

Published on June 14, 2018        Author:  and
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Between Saturday 9 June and Sunday 10 June, 629 migrants were rescued from overcrowded boats in the Central Mediterranean in search and rescue (SAR) operations carried out by NGOs and the Italian navy. They were taken on board by the Aquarius, a rescue vessel operated by the German NGO SOS Méditerranée and flying the flag of Gibraltar. On Sunday, the Aquarius was on its way to Italy, whose Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) had coordinated the operations. Around 35 nautical miles off the southern coast of Italy, Italian authorities ordered the Aquarius to stop. Italy refused the Aquarius access to its ports and prohibited disembarkation of the rescued migrants on Italian territory. This, Italy’s new Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini announced, would be Italy’s new policy for any NGO vessel rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.

Italy’s instructions ‘manifestly go against international rules’, Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted on Sunday night, but then himself denied the ship to dock in the port of Valletta. Malta in turn, Muscat claimed, was thereby acting in full compliance with international law. For another 24 hours, the Aquarius remained on stand-by, floating between Malta and Italy. Maltese and Italian vessels supplied the Aquarius with water and food, but neither of them gave in by offering safe haven.

On Monday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced that Spain could facilitate disembarkation of all 629 rescued individuals in the port of Valencia. When it appeared that this journey would be too dangerous for passengers and crew of the Aquarius and the Valencia-plan seemed off the table again, Italy offered its ships to facilitate safe passage to Spain.

This whole episode raises a broad variety of questions, but one stands out: Are Italy and Malta violating international law by not allowing the Aquarius to find a safe haven in one of their ports? Two legal regimes are particularly relevant in this respect: the law of the sea and international human rights law. As we argue, neither provides much clarity in relation to Aquarius-like incidents. Read the rest of this entry…