11 February 2019
“The case of Aquarius’ de-flagging…is a dark moment in the history of international SAR operations.”
Human Rights at Sea, February 2019.
London.UK. Human Rights at Sea issues its independent review and commentary into the ‘Human Rights and International Rule of Law Ramifications of the De-Flagging of M/V Aquarius Dignitus‘; a vessel chartered by SOS Méditerranée and previously operated in partnership with the Amsterdam-based branch of Médecins Sans Frontières, rescuing men, women and children in the Central Mediterranean Sea from certain death.
This is the first reported case by the charity of known politically-motivated State influence prevailing over well-publicised humanitarian search and rescue (SAR) activities at sea, thereby setting a dangerous precedent for the apparent ease of political interference in foreign flag State decision-making.
It details the background to the chartering of M/V Aquarius and highlights inconsistencies in reasoning given by the flag States which led to successive de-flaggings. It also raises questions as to why de-flagging occurred even after the charterers had acted transparently throughout the period of their charter in terms of the scope and extent of the humanitarian activities they were undertaking.
A key point, is that technical challenges to a flag registration should never be at the expense of, nor weighted more than, saving life at sea.
The publicly identified influence by the right-wing Italian Government upon the flag States involved (Panama and Gibraltar), concurrently raises important queries over the extent of, and acceptance of, politically-driven influence by a European Member State over humanitarian SAR activities. It further highlights Italian government challenge with the well-established rule of law in relation to saving life at sea, non-refoulement, and returning those rescued to genuine places of safety, which notably the OHCHR & UNHCR state as not being Libya despite EU best efforts to make it so.
Worryingly for the global shipping industry, it is only a small step to extend such political interference to influencing commercial shipping SAR operations during voyages to avoid disembarking those rescued in certain coastal States for reasons of migration policy, as opposed to humanity. If already occurring, exposure of such actions would be damaging to all involved.
Finally, the review must put the International Maritime Organisation on notice as to their questioning of the extent of political interference in lawful humanitarian SAR activities, and whether or not this is condoned by them, and/or challenged internally?
The Review concludes and comments that:
“Political interference at the expense of lawful humanitarian actions abuses the fundamental rights of those in peril at sea, and it goes against the fundamental human rights principles evolved after the brutal excesses of the Second World War which was triggered by the then failure to curb and challenge far-right political movements in Europe. The drive for effective humanitarian policies and supporting actions in protecting individual rights is one of the core foundations at the heart of the European model, but at the time of writing and in the context of the Central Mediterranean Sea it is being eroded through appeasement, thereby undermining the established rule of law.”
“The case of Aquarius’ de-flagging…is a dark moment in the history of international SAR operations”.
Human Rights at Sea, February 2019.
The matter under independent review is the incident of M/V Aquarius’ de-flagging. First by the Gibraltar Maritime Administration (GMA) after GMA issued notices that Italian authorities would not support MSF-SOS Méditerranée activities thereby forcing the owner to withdraw; followed by the Panama Maritime Authority (PMA) , a leading commercial flag State who appears to have been directly influenced by the Italian Government to follow suit.