The UN Human Rights Committee published its decision on Wednesday that Italy had failed to rescue over 200 drowning migrants in a shipwreck close to Lampedusa and within Malta’s Search and Rescue Zone on 11 October 2013.
The committee, an independent expert body that monitors States’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, concluded that Italy had failed to respond promptly to a number of distress calls from the sinking boat. As a result, some 200 people, including 60 children, drowned.
The decision was a response to a complaint by three Syrians and a Palestinian national who survived the incident but lost their families on board. They were fleeing civil war in Syria.
The incident in question occurred merely days after the infamous Lampedusa shipwreck on 3 October, where at least 359 persons had died, and the Italian Coast Guard had rescued some 155 survivors. This second incident, also close to Lampedusa, had reportedly left yet another 34 migrants and asylum-seekers dead.
A parallel claim was brought against Malta, but it was rejected by the UN committee since the plaintiffs had not brought legal proceedings before the Maltese Courts, a necessary requirement prior to filing a case with the Committee.
— UN Geneva (@UNGeneva) January 27, 2021
The complainants said Italian and Maltese rescue centres had “tried to pass responsibility for the rescue operation to one another instead of intervening promptly,” according to the UN statement.
At the time, international human rights NGOs as well as media organisations had called out both Malta and Italy for “passing the buck” and questioned whether a more efficient call to action from both countries would have prevented the tragedy.
“It is reasonable to question whether Italy and Malta acted promptly and with all available resources to save the refugees and migrants and whether a delay in going to their rescue contributed to the shipwreck,” Amnesty International had said in a report almost a year following the incident.
Seven years later, in a statement on Wednesday, committee member Helene Tigroudja said the case was “complex”.
“The accident happened in the international waters within the Maltese search and rescue zone but the location was indeed closest to Italy and to one of its naval ships. Had the Italian authorities immediately directed its naval ship and coast guard boats after the distress calls, the rescue would have reached the vessel at the latest two hours before it sank”.
“State parties are required under the international law of the sea to take steps to protect the lives of all individuals who find themselves in a situation of distress at sea. Even though the sinking vessel was not located in Italy’s search and rescue zone, the Italian authority had a duty to support the search and rescue mission to save the lives of the migrants. Italy’s delayed action had a direct impact on the loss of hundreds of lives,” Tigroudja added.
The Committee urged Italy to proceed with an independent and timely investigation and to prosecute those responsible. Italy and other countries involved in the tragedy also need to provide an effective remedy to those who lost their families in the accident.
How it happened
After leaving Libya on 10 October 2013, the vessel was shot by a boat flying a Berber flag in international waters, 113km south of Lampedusa and 218km south of Malta, according to the statement.
One of those on board called the Italian number for emergencies at sea, saying they were sinking and forwarding the boat’s coordinates. He rang several times again in the following hours, only to be told after several hours that since they were in the Maltese search and rescue zone and Italian authorities had forwarded their distress call to the Maltese authorities.
Despite the emergency, the Italian operator only provided the phone number of Malta’s Rescue Coordination Centre.
The migrants made several, increasingly desperate, phone calls to the Rescue Coordination Centre and the AFM. When a Maltese patrol boat arrived at the scene hours later, the vessel had already capsized.
Following Malta’s urgent request, Italy finally instructed its navy ship ITS Libra, which was in the boat’s vicinity, to come to the rescue in the evening, at 6pm, the UN statement notes.
According to local media reports at the time, Malta had brought 147 of the shipwrecked asylum seekers to shore.
Seven years later, such a decision is significant in light of similar events. In April, NGO Repubblika initiated court action against Prime Minister Robert Abela’s Cabinet for its decision to close Malta’s ports and ignore distressed individuals at sea despite the imminent danger they were in, resulting in at least five migrants having been reported dead.