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Human Rights Charity Reviews the De-Flagging of Aquarius Dignitus

Image courtesy of Human Rights at Sea
Image courtesy of Human Rights at Sea

By The Maritime Executive 2019-02-11 19:31:13

The U.K.-based charity Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) has conducted an independent review of the legal and human rights ramifications of the de-flagging of the Aquarius Dignitus - a rescue vessel chartered by SOS Méditerranée and previously operated in partnership with the Amsterdam-based branch of Médecins Sans Frontières.

It has been estimated that Aquarius Dignitus assisted more than 29,000 people in distress at sea. The de-flagging occurred first by the Gibraltar Maritime Administration (GMA) after GMA issued notices that Italian authorities would not support MSF-SOS Méditerranée activities thereby (effectively) forcing the owner to withdraw. A second de-flagging occurred, by the Panama Maritime Authority, which also appears to have been influenced by the Italian Government, alleges HRAS. However, HRAS acknowledges that each flag State reflected their positions as being technical ones, not political.

The review states that technical challenges to a flag registration should never be at the expense of, nor weighted more than, saving life at sea. “As a collective incident, it is one that has set a worrying precedent in the area of human rights and maritime law. Meantime, hundreds, possibly thousands of migrants’ lives continue to be at imminent risk in the Central Mediterranean Sea,” states the review.

“There is still no dedicated European State-led SAR operation in the Central Mediterranean leading to the continued and increased risk for the loss of human life of those attempting the deadly crossing out of necessity. Vulnerable people will therefore continue to die in the Mediterranean as publicly reported by the likes of the UNHCR [the U.N. Refugee Agency], while Aquarius has been forced to terminate its operations.”

The publicly identified influence by the right-wing Italian Government upon the flag States involved (Panama and Gibraltar), raises questions about the extent of, and acceptance of, politically-driven influence by a European Member State over humanitarian SAR activities. It further highlights 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 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UNHCR state as not being Libya despite E.U. best efforts to make it so.

HRAS asks where the IMO stands on the issues raised and concludes 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 review is available here.