Italy in Violation of International Law, Lawyers Say


A large group of leading international law academics in Europe, including RWI’s director and head of research, are calling today for Italy to cease its policy of promoting, directing and enforcing returns to Libya with immediate effect after Italian authorities recently seized the Spanish NGO rescue boat ‘Open Arms’.

The academics are also calling on Italy to cease prosecuting actors who deliver people rescued at sea to a place of safety. They argue that Italy is acting in violation of international law.

Photo above: A picture of another rescue: From the UNHCR / Francesco Malavolta / 17 April 2015

On March 18, the ‘Open Arms’ refused to hand over to the Libyan coast guard 218 people it had rescued in international waters.  The Italian authorities initiated criminal investigations against the NGO coordinator and the captain of the boat. And Italy claims that they were obliged to do so, on the basis of the Italian NGO Code of Conduct. Instead, the ‘Open Arms’ brought two rescued persons to Malta (where a mother and child were hospitalized in critical condition), and the remaining to Italy. The NGO people face prosecution on account of taking part in human smuggling (Le Monde, 22 March 2018).

Under international law, shipmasters are under the obligation to assist people in distress at sea, and to bring them to a place of safety. The captain of the ‘Open Arms’ has complied with this requirement by rescuing the 218 people and subsequently refusing to hand them over to the Libyan coast guard. On the basis of well documented human rights reports, the captain knew that handing them to the Libyan coast guard would imply the real risk that the 218 people would be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, slavery, or forced or compulsory labour, which constitute grave human rights violations or even crimes against humanity. Libya is not a place of safety as required under international law.

Statement by 29 academics on Italy seizing the rescue boat Open Arms