HRAS deplores the arrest of Captain Carola Rackete

Press Release

29th June 2019

Photo Credit:Carola Rackete REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

London. UK. The arrest in the early hours this morning in the Italian port of Lampedusa of Carola Rackete, the German captain of the Dutch-flagged humanitarian rescue vessel, Sea-Watch 3, who defied the imposed ban to disembark migrants saved from a rubber dinghy off the coast of Libya on 19 January,  has been welcomed by nationalists and the Interior Ministry headed by Italy’s far-right Matteo Salvini, and deplored by humanitarians and sympathetic commentators worldwide.

Human Rights at Sea stands with Captain Carola Rackete and crew of Sea-Watch in their considered actions to lawfully safeguard life at sea and deliver their rescued migrant passengers to a place of safety. 

After over two weeks at sea and in her position in command, Carola Rackete decided that she had no choice but to enter Italian territorial waters illegally, to bring the migrants that remained onboard and had not been medically evacuated, to safety.

The submission by the German NGO on 24 June 2019 to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) requesting Italy adopt urgent interim measures that “serve to prevent serious and irremediable violations of human rights” and allow the disembarkation of migrants, was heard. This was subsequently rejected by the Court following submissions, though the ECHR did insist that Italy “is expected to provide assistance to persons on board who are vulnerable because of their age or state of health.”

The actions of Carola Rackete was a command decision by a vessel Captain, the arrest of whom now sends an increased spectre of criminalisation of not just humanitarian rescuers as highlighted by the charity in 2016, and updated this year, but of Captains in general for taking fair, reasonable and necessary decisions to safeguard their crew, passengers and their vessel.

Founder and Trustee, David Hammond, himself a former experienced naval officer and operational naval barrister commented that: “It takes a certain type of person to own such a decision, take command responsibility as the Captain of a vessel, and determine the fate of those entrusted to them for their personal safety and protection at sea. We deplore the arrest of this woman seafarer acting in a humanitarian capacity, but understand the need to uphold the rule of law.”


Background Review & Commentary

Geneva. Switzerland. 29th June 2019. On 12th June, Sea-Watch 3 rescued 47 migrants in distress at sea. Since then, the vessel had waited for over two weeks for a solution from the European States to disembark those rescued persons to a place of safety. No solution came, no European unity was demonstrated, and there was a lacuna of ownership.

On 26th June, the captain of the ship, Carola Rackete, decided to try to enter the port of Lampedusa to bring the rescued persons to safety. The Italian ports however remained closed following an Interior Ministry decree, and her act was deemed as illegal.

The state of the rescued persons is fragile and during the past weeks, a series of medical evacuations (medevacs) have taken place. Doctors on board the Sea-Watch 3 posted unsettling video reports, calling the European States for assistance to allow them to disembark the rescued persons to the closest place of safety.

For fifteen days in a row, Captain Rackete has been informing European States of the health of the persons rescued from distress currently onboard the Sea-Watch 3.

In times where information, and dis-information, is rapidly spread throughout the globe, this was a call that may not be ignored. People who have attempted suicide, threatening to throw themselves above board, who have been through the worst sorts of personal violence in Libya are now begging to disembark in a place of safety. Captain Rackete and her crew have been complying with their duties as per UNCLOS, SOLAS, the SAR Convention, and other customary international law principles.

Italian Interior Minister’s Decree

On land, the Italian Government issued a decree fining NGO Search-and-Rescue (SAR) vessels up to €5,500 for each “migrant” they have rescued from distress disembarked in Italy. The aim is to close the Italian borders and has made Italy non-compliant with their international obligations.

We are now living in a dangerous era were the Italian Interior Minister has chosen to distinguish who should be rescued, and who should be rendered assistance.

This is effectively a politicised attempt at the redefining of maritime rescue operations, and the subjective defining what a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ rescue case is.

Let us however be clear. When confronted with a distress case at sea, no one should be confronted with the questioning on whether or not they will be fined for this, whether this person is worth being rescued or not. Rescue at sea is a duty, and let us be reminded as the UNHCR recently stated, SAR NGO vessels are not a pull factor.

State of Necessity

On 26th June, Captain Rackete decided under the state of necessity to enter Italian territorial waters, hoping to force the disembarkation of the migrant passengers she and her crew rescued over two weeks previous; a responsibility that the Italian government has not taken on.

Talks on coordinated European response and action of Sea-Watch

While European States have been promoting the need for a coordinated response in regards to rescues in the Central Mediterranean Sea, while the EU Council has decided upon the need to create humanitarian disembarkation platforms over a year ago, while Libya is in a state of civil war and Tripoli is yet considered a place of safety, Sea-Watch has arguably taken a courageous moral lead to rescue those who are in distress at sea, and ensure that these persons will be taken under the responsibility of a State where they may safely apply for asylum without risking their mental or physical health.

Criminalization of rescuers and consequence

The criminalization of rescuers establishes a dangerous precedent with consequences that are often kept silent. Commercial vessels operating in the same area where Sea-Watch 3 have rescued persons from drowning, though such vessels often lack crew preparedness for such rescue operations, and risk commercial and legal penalization in case of course deviation.

The World is now watching the inhumane and degrading treatment that the persons onboard the Sea-Watch 3 have been receiving. Italy, as a key EU Member State, is deliberately obstructing the disembarkation of persons rescued from distress at sea, rather promoting the alternative solution to send the rescued persons back to Libya where it is well known that they would be subject to arbitrary detention.

This morning, Captain Rackete was arrested by the Italian authorities. She has, nonetheless, taken a balanced decision to ensure that the human rights of all persons were respected and life saved at sea. Further, those persons she has rescued at sea should now be disembarked in a place of safety.

Human rights apply at sea as equally as they do on land.


Important Note to Readers

Human Rights at Sea continues to publish educational materials, publications, investigative case studies of individual and family testimony highlighting unacceptable conditions onboard vessels of all tonnages, as well as throughout the associated maritime supply chain, in order to establish greater public awareness of the issues raised without compromising our editorial freedom.

The charity does not subscribe to any imposed protocols and agreements with other entities effectively limiting the ability to report freely and objectively disclose facts, including the reality of unacceptable labour and wider human rights abuses at sea.

The charity will therefore continue to take a legal and moral stand whenever and wherever it can to fairly advocate for the betterment of human rights, working conditions, and the reduction in abuse at sea. This includes pressing issues such as the criminalisation of seafarers and humanitarian rescuers, abuses towards migrants, impunity of flag States in transparently reacting to and addressing reported abuse, the expansion of the positive contributory role of civil society organisations in the maritime sector, and the provision of greater awareness of effective remedies when abuse occurs.

Our Ask in return

We rely on public and private donations to be able to continue this invaluable and independent work free of bias and interference and every donation, however small or large, goes to assure continuation of our transparent and objective front-end work ensuring that ‘human rights apply at sea, as they do on land’. Thank you.

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