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Italy-EU search and rescue code could increase Mediterranean deaths, UN expert warns

GENEVA (15 August 2017) – A new code of conduct to be imposed on organizations rescuing migrants and refugees from the Mediterranean Sea could restrict their life-saving work and result in more deaths, a United Nations expert has warned.

The code of conduct, drawn up by Italy with the support of the European Commission, is part of a new action plan designed to support Italy, reduce the pressure of migrant arrivals, and “increase solidarity”.

The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, said that in any such action plan, Italy and other EU Member States must uphold their international human rights obligations to protect the right to life of every individual, including refugees and migrants, without discrimination.

“Through this new code of conduct, Italy and the European Commission are imposing procedures that could reduce the ability of NGOs to carry out life-saving activities. This could lead to more deaths at sea, and the resulting loss of lives, being foreseeable and preventable, would constitute a violation of Italy’s human rights obligations,” the expert said.

“This code of conduct and the overall action plan suggest that Italy, the European Commission and EU Member States deem the risks and reality of deaths at sea a price worth paying in order to deter migrants and refugees.”

The European Commission is also seeking enhanced cooperation with Libya, investing 46 million euro in support of the Libyan border- and coast guards, including their search and rescue operations.

Ms. Callamard warned that, given the situation in Libya, this funding to retrieve refugees and migrants from the Mediterranean and return them to Libya could mean they were subjected to further “appalling violence”. 

The expert reported that refugees and migrants in Libya were facing abuse and extreme violence, including violations of their right to life. “Some are being deliberately killed; others are dying as a result of torture, malnutrition and medical neglect,” she said.

“There are also reports of violations of the right to life committed by the Libyan coast guard, including during the interception of migrants and refugees at sea by shooting at migrant vessels or by using dangerous interception techniques,” the Special Rapporteur continued.

Ms. Callamard noted that the number of migrants and refugees returned to Libya appeared to exceed the number placed in immigration detention, indicating that some were being taken to unofficial detention centres and other places where they were being deprived of their liberty and were at increased risk of grave abuses, including death.

“No matter how much the support of the European Commission or others is needed, it must not lead to further abuses of migrants and refugees. This would be the direct opposite of the right to life, and the antithesis of search and rescue. Such support could even be construed as aiding and assisting in the commission of human rights violations,” she underscored.

The expert acknowledged that the Libyan coast guard’s search and rescue capabilities were in need of improvement. “However, this cannot happen in the absence of demonstrable guarantees that the rights of intercepted migrants and refugees will be respected, and that they will be protected from violations and abuses by State agents and by non-State actors, such as armed militias and smugglers,” she stressed.

“As long as migrants and refugees who transit through or are returned to Libya are at risk of gross human rights violations, including arbitrary killings, Italy must provide search and rescue on the Mediterranean, uphold the prohibition on refoulement and ensure that NGOs can contribute fully to this end,” Ms. Callamard said.

“The European Commission must support Italy in meeting its human rights obligations. EU Member States must fully accept their shared responsibility, including the reception and relocation of refugees and migrants,” she concluded.

The Special Rapporteur has sought clarification from the European Union, Italian authorities and Libyan authorities on the issues in question.

Ms. Agnes Callamard (France) is the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. She has a distinguished career in human rights and humanitarian work globally. Ms. Callamard is the Director of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression at Columbia University and has previously worked with Article 19 and Amnesty International. She has advised multilateral organizations and governments around the world, has led human rights investigations in more than 30 countries, and has published extensively on human rights and related fields.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country pages: Italy  and  Libya

For more information and media requests please contact Ms. Vanessa Asensio (+41 22 917 9158 / vasensioperez@ohchr.org), Ms. Laura Kruger (+41 22 917 9361 / lkruger@ohchr.org) or write to eje@ohchr.org.

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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