On Monday, the Forensic Architecture team at Goldsmith College, London, published Death by Rescue. The report exposes a rather complex set of facts, but the basic argument is as simple as it is alarming.
Operation Triton, facilitated by Europe’s border security agency, Frontex, began on 1 November 2014 and is mandated to enforce Italy’s maritime border. Triton replaced an earlier and much wider Italian Navy operation, Mare Nostrum, which began in October 2013 and was mandated to save migrant lives beyond Italy’s territorial waters. When EU officials decided on the more limited scope of Triton, they knew their decision would result in the drowning of numerous migrants. As one Frontex official wryly noted, “the withdrawal of naval assets from the area, if not properly planned and announced well in advance, would likely result in a higher number of fatalities.” But the European Commission turned a blind eye – leading to a spike in migrant deaths, which the authors, Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani meticulously document.
From a legal perspective, this set of circumstances raises the question whether the migrants’ rights were violated, and if so, whether EU actors can be held legally accountable. In my view, the report exposes no illegal activity by European agents, either at the operational or at the policymaking level. Perhaps more troubling, the report raises the specter of unaccountable violence ingrained in the very structure of international law. If international law is somehow to blame for circumstances that made these utterly preventable deaths possible, then perhaps it is law itself that should be indicted.
Law of the Land, Law of the Sea
To explain what I mean by that, several rather theoretical remarks are required.
In common law countries, one of the first things law students learn is that law imposes no duties of rescue upon individuals qua individuals. The classical jurisprudence on this includes comically macabre examples. A characteristic hypothetical describes a bystander witnessing a drowning baby. Law professors often use the initially astonishing absence of a duty of rescue to illustrate a basic tenet of legal positivism: the distinction between legal and moral prescription (or “the separation thesis”). Students are expected to adopt this distinction as a second nature. Rescuing the drowning stranger, they are comforted, is morally required. Of course, there are important exceptions to the general absence of a duty of recue. The basic point nevertheless stands: law does not impose a duty of rescue. Law does not always follow moral prescription. Read the rest of this entry…