OP-ED: Sea-Watch Captain freed. A victory for humanitarian rescue at sea.


5 July 2019

Photo credit: Reuters

Geneva, Switzerland. Captain Carola Rackete has now been freed, but the European political controversy continues.

The judicial decision delivered a much needed victory for both common-sense and humanitarian acts of rescue at sea, thereby setting a precedent to be reflected on for all vessel Captains and policy makers alike.

Judge Alessandra Vella made a decision that reflected no case to answer, as the charges raised by Italian prosecutors against the Sea-Watch Captain were non-applicable in this case.

Sea-Watch, nonetheless, still anticipates further investigations based on a prosecutorial suspicion of facilitation of illegal migration. Meanwhile, the Sea-Watch 3 vessel remains detained by Italian authorities.


The charges submitted against Captain Rackete focused on allegations that she had rammed a military vessel. The Italian vessel was allegedly preventing the Sea-Watch 3 from entering Lampedusa’s port. As it has been now ruled, Captain Rackete acted entirely lawfully by acting under her professional obligations as the Captain of the Sea-Watch 3, fulfilling her duty to save life at sea.

Rackete was “doing her duty saving human lives” ruled Judge Vella.

While many expected Italy’s new Directives aimed at fining migrant rescuers to create further obstacles for NGO rescue operations, it is yet to be proven that the Sea-Watch Captain and her crew are “human traffickers” as per the Italian Directives. This is therefore a distracting political show that has been created to fail as, as one familiar with the applicable law would know that one of the criteria of such an allegation, is that to be a trafficker, the accused would have been making profit out of such activity. This is clearly not the case.

Mr Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, and leader of far-right Lega party remains resolute in his migration position, though Ms. Sibeth Ndiaye, the French Government’s spokeswoman, has heavy criticised the Italian Government saying: “ “I think that, basically, the Italian Government has not been up to the task.” and stating that “Mr Matteo Salvini’s behaviour has not been acceptable as far as I am concerned.”

Let us be reminded that Sea-Watch, as well as other humanitarian NGOs, are operating under strict compliance with well-established humanitarian principles. The Italian Interior Minister appears to be intentionally spreading misinforming the general public through misinterpretation of maritime law, levying unnecessary fines, and further calling Captain Rackete an outlaw and a people smuggler.

UN human rights experts condemned the bill aimed at fining migrant rescuers, raising global indignation towards the existence of such decree in the first place.

Furthermore, the UN press release notes as follows: “The Directives stigmatize migrants as “possible terrorists, traffickers and smugglers”, without providing evidence, the experts said. “We are concerned that this type of rhetoric will further increase the climate of hatred and xenophobia, as previously highlighted in another letter to which the Italian Government is also yet to reply,”

International Support

During the two nights during which Capt. Rackete was under house arrest, international support grew from international stakeholders, governments and civil society organisations.

Meantime, UN spokesperson for the Secretary-General Antonio Guterress, Stéphane Dujarric, warned Italy against the criminalization of sea rescue: “no vessel or ship master should be at risk of being fined for coming to the aid of boats in distress, where loss of life is imminent,”. Germany’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Heiko Maas, further firmly criticized Italy for arresting Captain Rackete, stating that sea rescue should never be criminalized.

Libyan Detention Centers

Libya is not a port of safety for persons rescued in the Central Mediterranean Sea despite assurances that it is, and therefore Captain Rackete’s decision to enter the port of Lampedusa was a justified and necessary one based on well-documented facts and evidence concerning gross human rights abuses in Libya, including the latest news that migrants were made to work in weapons factories and were shot at when they tired to flee.

Soon after the release of Captain Rackete from house arrest this week, a migrant detention centre was hit by an airstrike in Tajoura, in the eastern suburbs of Tripoli on Wednesday morning, 3 July.  Housing over 610 people with a reported 53 dead and over 130 severely injured. UN Secretary General, António Guterres, called for an independent investigation, and the UN labelled it as “a war crime and odious bloody carnage”. Amnesty has called for an ICC investigation into war crimes, and UNHCR has publicly requested to halt all efforts to sending migrants rescued at sea back to Libya.

Under International Humanitarian Law it is well established that civilians should never be a targeted, yet it is still shameful to see that the EU’s collective efforts and migration policies are concentrated on keeping migrants from attempting the Mediterranean crossing from Libya, where they are subject to arbitrary detention and the worse forms of human rights violations.

Weakening of the Search And Rescue system

The EU approach to the coordination of disembarkation has failed to show its efficiency and effectiveness to a known issue. It is also worth noting that it is in this context, that NGO search-and-rescue operations have also been systematically criminalized since 2015.

In the latest case, it was well over two weeks of waiting for an EU solution, despite assurance from several countries that the Sea-Watch migrants would be taken by other EU States, that Captain Rackete decided to enter the port of Lampedusa.

Ruben Neugebauer, Sea-Watch’s spokesperson, state during a press conference on Tuesday that one of the potential major consequences of this failure to coordinate efforts and the risk of criminalisation might put captains of commercial vessels operating in the Central Mediterranean Sea in a difficult position where they will think twice before rescuing a person found in distress. Sea rescue is however a duty, and those who find themselves in such position need the full support and cooperation of all applicable authorities.

What’s next

Next week Captain Rackete is to return in front of a Prosecuter in Sicily where she is expected to be charged with facilitation of  illegal migration, a conviction for which she risks up to 15 years in prison.

The likelihood of prosecutorial success after the first ruling is now in question, and any evidence being proffered for new charges will come under close judicial, political and civil society scrutiny, as any outcome and potential trial will also shape the course of European policy and politics related to the migrant issue.


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.

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