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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…

 

Salami Slicing Human Rights Accountability: How the European Border and Coast Guard Agency may inherit Frontex’ genetic defect

Published on March 10, 2016        Author: 
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Salami slicing is the exercise of dividing one salami sausage into many smaller pieces in the shape of slices. Slices have some advantages over the whole piece. Figuratively speaking, actions that are illegal or difficult to achieve as a whole may become easier, legal, or harder to detect if ‘sliced’ into a series of small actions. The ‘salami slicing’ metaphor is typically used pejoratively to describe practices that take advantage of the benefits that the accumulated ‘slices’ have over the whole, such as stealing or embezzling very small quantities of money repeatedly, or publishing fractions of one research that would form one meaningful paper in several small papers. As discussed in the following piece, something similar can be observed in relation to accountability for human rights violations that may occur during border control operations conducted jointly by several EU member states under the auspices of the EU agency Frontex. Regrettably, this structural shortcoming in the set-up of joint operations coordinated by Frontex is one that the new European Border and Cost Guard Agency is likely to inherit.

The proposal for a new European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCGA) was published by the European Commission on 15 December 2015. The plan is to significantly enhance Frontex’ mandate and to reflect those changes in renaming it. The new agency will dispose of considerably increased human and financial resources and gain substantial powers, such as requiring a member state to take ‘corrective measures’ to address ‘upcoming challenges’ at its external border, a possibility to intervene without invitation where it identifies serious deficiencies in a member state’s external border management, additional competences to cooperate with and operate in third countries, and an enhanced role in return operations (for a concise overview see here).

The proposal is part of a package of measures aimed at protecting the area without internal borders by strengthening its external borders. It comes in the midst of the escalating migration crisis Read the rest of this entry…

 

Protecting Europe or Irregular Migrants? The (Mis)use of Force in the Mediterranean

Published on May 15, 2015        Author: 
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On Monday 11 May Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, officially briefed the UN Security Council on the current crisis in Europe. The crisis relates to the sharp increase of fatalities of individuals trying to cross the Mediterranean in order to reach European shores. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports 1.800 deaths since the beginning of 2015, more than 800 of them during a single incident in April. Deaths in the Mediterranean are an annually recurring tragedy triggering public outcry in spring that dwindles down as less individuals attempt the journey due to the harsher conditions at sea during the colder months. However, 2015 is likely to become the deadliest year. According to Peter Sutherland, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for International Migration, these numbers represent a 20-fold increase over the same period last year. The surge in fatalities is largely attributed to the discontinuation of the search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum by the Italian navy and its replacement by the smaller scale operation Triton. The latter is coordinated by the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (Frontex) and focuses on border control and surveillance rather than search and rescue (see also here).

To be sure, this demands action. An ‘exceptional and coordinated response’ is required to deal with the ‘unprecedented situation’, Ms Mogherini told the Security Council. On 23 April the European leaders came together for an emergency summit to devise a plan of action to respond to the tragedy. The action plan, presented to the Security Council on Monday, promises a strengthened European presence at sea, announces increased efforts to prevent irregular migration and declares the fight against human traffickers a priority. To crack down on human traffickers Europe pledges to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers. This course of action is not without obstacles. The vessels in question, prior to their use, are mostly situated in Libya, but surely outside Europe. Quite inconspicuous at first sight, Europe’s proposal therefore requires using military force on the territory of another state and touches upon a bedrock rule of international law: the prohibition of the use of force. Read the rest of this entry…