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UN experts hail landmark ruling by European Court of Human Rights on shooting by Greek Coastguard

24 January 2024

GENEVA (24 January 2024) – UN experts* today hailed the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgment that Greece had violated a Syrian refugee’s right to life when its coastguards shot at a vessel carrying migrants and asylum seekers in 2014.

The shooting injured the Syrian refugee, who later died after months in hospital. The application to the Strasbourg-based European Court was filed by his wife and children. In its ruling published on 16 January 2024, the court said Greece was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

“The judgment in the case of Alkhatib v. Greece marks an important milestone reiterating the obligations of States to respect the lives of migrants at sea,” the experts said.

The Court found that Greek authorities had not established clear rules on the potentially lethal use of firearms in Coast Guard operations, with coastguards invoking unpublished, outdated, and inadequate 1992 “rules of engagement.” Greece failed to establish an adequate and effective legal framework governing the use of potentially lethal force in its area of maritime surveillance operations, the ruling said, adding that investigations into the incident, carried out by national authorities, had been ineffective.

The UN experts have continuously called on Greece to abide by its obligations under international human rights law and international refugee law, particularly when intercepting migrant boats in the Mediterranean Sea and detaining and extraditing asylum seekers and refugees. They referred to the 2017 report by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions on the “Unlawful death of refugees and migrants.” The report focuses on the mass casualties of refugees and migrants and suggests that particular attention should be given to women, who could be at greater risk of unlawful death.

In July 2022, in the judgment Safi and Others v. Greece, the ECtHR found violations of articles 2 (the right to life) and 3 (the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment) of the ECHR by Greece in the case of a shipwreck which occurred during an alleged pushback in the Aegean, off the island Farmakonisi, resulting in the death of 11 people.

UN experts raised concerns regarding the death of at least 82 persons at Sea and probably up to 600 persons reportedly disappeared, including at least 100 children and an undetermined number of women, following the sinking of the fishing boat Adriana off the Greek coast on 14 June 2023.

“The rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, in particular the right to life and the principle of non-refoulement, must always be protected in accordance with international human rights law and international refugee law. Their situation should be assessed and processed based on the Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights at International Borders,” the experts said. States have a duty to rescue all individuals who find themselves in a situation of distress at sea without delay, including in the absence of a request for help from individuals on the boat, they said. “This is a fundamental principle of international law, to be applied without discrimination, regardless of nationality, status, or the circumstances in which the persons concerned are found.”

States have duties to protect migrants who may be at particular risk at international borders, such as children, including unaccompanied and separated children, and women, including pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, as well as persons who have suffered abuse and gender-based violence.

“In light of the repeated tragedies at sea, particularly in the Mediterranean, we urge the European Union, the African Union and the League of Arab States to work together towards achieving a viable, durable solution that would adequately protect all migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, including based on the provisions of the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration,” the experts said.

States must cooperate internationally and take collective responsibility to save lives and prevent migrant deaths and injuries through search and rescue operations, the experts said. “States must live up to their commitment to identify those who have died or gone missing or disappeared, and facilitate communication with affected families,” they said.

* The experts: Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions ; Gehad Madi, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants ; Alice Jill Edwards, Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment ; Ms Ashwini K.P. Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance ; Ms. Dorothy Estrada Tanck (Chair), Ms. Claudia Flores, Ms. Ivana Krstić, Ms. Haina Lu, and Ms. Laura Nyirinkindi, Working Group on discrimination against women and girls ; Ms Aua Baldé (Chair-Rapporteur), Ms Gabriella Citroni (Vice-Chair), Ms Angkhana Neelapaijit, Ms Grażyna Baranowska, Ms Ana Lorena Delgadillo Pérez, Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances; Ms. Priya Gopalan (Chair-Rapporteur), Mr. Matthew Gillett (Vice-Chair on Communications), Ms. Miriam Estrada-Castillo, and Mr. Mumba Malila - Working Group on arbitrary detention

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.

For additional information and media requests please contact the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Gihan Indraguptha ([email protected]) or [email protected].

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Maya Derouaz ([email protected]) and Dharisha Indraguptha ([email protected])

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