“Our goal as civil society is to tear down this barrier which is obstructing search and rescue.”

Das blau, gelb, weiße Rettungsschiff, die Humanity 1, auf dem Mittelmeer.
Pietro Bertora / SOS Humanity

The civil court in Crotone, Italy, confirmed in April 2024 that the court’s emergency decision on 18 March 2024 to release from detention the non-governmental rescue ship Humanity 1, which had been detained two weeks earlier, was lawful. The judge ruled that the crew of our rescue ship saved lives in accordance with the law, while the so-called Libyan Coast Guard endangered them. While the final judgement on the detention is still pending, Giulia Crescini, a lawyer for SOS Humanity, explains in an interview why this court decision is itself groundbreaking. 

 The Humanity 1 was detained in March 2024. What were the accusations based on?

The Humanity 1 was placed under administrative detention because it was alleged to have endangered people on the move and failed to comply with the instructions of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard and the Libyan Rescue Coordination Centre.  

Why was the detention of the rescue ship Humanity 1 not lawful according to the judge’s preliminary assessment, and the ship immediately released to be able to resume its rescue missions?

The captain of Humanity 1 attempted to comply with instructions from the Libyan Rescue Coordination Centre and so-called Libyan Coast Guard  – but these instructions are often either incomplete, non-existent or entirely unreasonable. Nevertheless, the Italian MRCC requires compliance with the often non-existent instructions from the so-called Libyan Coast Guard. Even if there had been instructions, a rescue ship would not be required to comply with orders from an authority that would result in the transfer of people fleeing Libya onto Libyan patrol boats and their refoulement to Libya. 

Fotobeweis von der Gewaltbereitschaft der sogeannten libyschen Küstenwache
Camilla Kranzusch / SOS Humanity

In this case, the rescue had already begun when the so-called Libyan Coast Guard intervened and called on the crew of Humanity 1 to halt the rescue. It is clear that the duty to rescue is a primary principle in international law and that all ships must safeguard life at sea. It was therefore impossible to demand any different behaviour from the captain of the Humanity 1. The so-called Libyan Coast Guard then opened fire and endangered refugees. 

In the appeal against the detention of the Humanity 1, we highlighted the violent conduct of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, which behaved more like pirates than a national authority. Secondly, the captain of Humanity 1 did comply with the instructions, to the extent that this was possible. But thirdly: the captain cannot comply with the instructions of an authority that involves transshipment of people on the move onto patrol boats to be forced back to Libyan ports. Libya is not a safe country, as demonstrated by the Italian Supreme Court´s ruling against the captain of Asso 28, convicted of returning migrants to Libya. People fleeing Libya and seeking international protection cannot be returned to Libya because of the inhumane and degrading treatment to which they would be exposed. 

Can you describe the importance of the judge’s decision regarding the safeguarding of humanitarian work in the Central Mediterranean?

The judge gives some very clear and important indications on the limits of the activities of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard and thus of their coordination of rescue operations. Should this interpretation be confirmed on a large scale, of course, we will finally have a strong stance from the judiciary that non-governmental vessels can no longer be required to coordinate search and rescue activities with Libya or pretend that it is a trustworthy entity in an international context. 

Why is it important that the court did not classify the activities of the Libyan Rescue Coordination Centre and the so-called Libyan Coast Guard as search and rescue operations, but as illegal pull-backs to a country which is not a place of safety?

The judge agreed with the sense of our appeal about the role of Libya in Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. A SAR operation involves coastal states, who are obliged to ensure operations end with disembarkation in a safe country, which Libya is not.

Libya cannot coordinate SAR operations due to a lack of capacity, equipment and training, but above all because it cannot designate a safe country of disembarkation.

All the more so if one looks at the conduct of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard. On board Humanity 1 we have heard about the increasingly violent conduct of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard (the dangerous manoeuvres, beatings, whippings, etc.), but today we are talking about a so-called Libyan Coast Guard that shoots near refugees in the water and risks the lives of international rescue workers. 

We can see that we are not dealing with rescue operations but with interceptions/pull-backs to Libya. Italy would like to send back all the people fleeing from Libya, but having been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2012 for pushing them back, it has delegated authority to another entity. Since 2017, Italy has been paying and delegating authority to Libya to intercept people on the move and send them back to Libya. Italy is making interceptions possible not only through political support but with tangible material help. Italy wants people on the move to be returned to the country from which they fled, a violation of the non-refoulement principle in Article 33 of the Geneva Refugee Convention. 

Will this decision affect the practices of NGOs in the Central Mediterranean? Does it mean that now, legally, NGO ships do not have to follow instructions from the so-called Libyan Coast Guard?

Unfortunately, not yet. Of course, the more verdicts there are, the more unlawful conduct in the Central Mediterranean is combated. Italy’s Supreme Court ruling on Libya not being a safe country and refugees being exposed to inhumane and degrading treatment was very important. If we have several identical sentences, it is possible to demonstrate that the Italian government is harassing NGOs and misinterpreting the meaning of the law. 

In this case, however, it is a provisional judgement. However, the real meaning of this fight, which is not merely procedural, remains the ability of civil society to change the behaviour of the public administration. 

Zwei Demo-Schilder mit gelben Rahmen, auf denen "Menschenrechte enden nicht auf dem Mittelmeer" und "Saving Lives is not a crime" steht.
Wanda Proft / SOS Humanity

After this ruling, is there room to appeal the constitutionality of the ‘Piantedosi law’ before the Constitutional Court?

Not automatically. Lawyers may bring a case in court against a detention but cannot force the judge to consider whether the law itself is constitutional. A judge may or may not decide to consider the question of constitutionality. But the more judgments there are, the more judges will feel incentivised to rule on this question. 

Recently there have been various other rulings in favour of NGO SAR activities. What sort of signal is being sent to the Italian authorities who have been implementing the political agenda of the Meloni government by obstructing search and rescue NGOs?

In different parts of Italy, at every latitude, the same matter is being interpreted in the same way: judges are sending positive signals by questioning the correct interpretation of the law. This ruling is a preliminary ruling but could still be used by other NGOs. 

The overall signal from the state, however, remains negative: Italian authorities are trying to demoralise, to block, to send back people fleeing Libya and Tunisia, and to make NGOs pay huge legal fees. But since 2017, for the first time, the Italian government has been confronted with a line-up of judges who have become actors again in a debate that was entirely politicised. Our goal as civil society is to tear down this barrier which is obstructing search and rescue. 

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