“Malta’s government is in denial about the catalogue of human rights violations”, Amnesty International concluded in its report ‘Malta: waves of impunity – Malta’s human rights violations’.
Amnesty launched the report in a press release titled ‘Malta: Illegal tactics mar another year of suffering in the central Mediterranean”. Amnesty is a global organization of over 10 million people in 150 countries which campaigns against human rights abuses, of which there is no shortage around the world. So why focus on Malta, a European Union democractic state?
Amnesty’s reasons were eloquently communicated by regional researcher Elisa di Pieri. Malta “is stooping to ever more despicable and illegal tactics to shirk their responsibilities to people in need”.
On Easter Monday, 12 people died in desperate circumstances. They were part of a group of 63 who crammed in claustrophobic conditions on a small boat in the hope they would escape desperation and find new hope.
That ill-fated journey was before Malta’s courts. Prime minister Robert Abela was testifying. As he took his oath, he joked that the court room felt claustrophobic. There was nothing funny about the death of 12 people or the pushback of the remaining 51.
The Prime minister was desperately justifying what Amnesty International called “its catalogue of human rights violations involved in its activities at sea”. What Abela was really doing was defending disregard for human life.
His testimony was unreal. Malta was informed by Frontex of the co-ordinates of a boat in distress in Malta’s search and rescue area. For two whole days, Malta did nothing. Abela shockingly argued “we could have done nothing and remained within our legal rights”.
He blamed the Public health Superintendent. She declared a health emergency and closed ports and airports and therefore, according to Abela, Malta was exonerated from international obligations to preserve life.
In a press conference, Abela made the deeply offensive argument that since Malta prevented luxury cruise liner tourists from disembarking, it couldn’t possibly allow people on sinking boats to do so. Abela equated conditions on luxury cruise liners to those on rickety boats crammed with human beings deprived of the most basic requirement – water. One big difference – claustrophobia was not the primary concern of cruise liner tourists.
Abela knows his assertion “we could have done nothing” is wrong. On a human level “doing nothing” as fellow humans drown is deeply disturbing. Even in the hallowed grounds of “legality” which Abela inhabits, his statement doesn’t hold water.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a statement. It reminded Abela that “European states must continue to disembark people rescued at risk, in line with international maritime obligations and ensure access to asylum and humanitarian assistance”.
They demolished Abela’s blaming Charmaine Gauci for failing to save those 12 lives. “Malta’s decision to close its ports to disembarkations is not in line with international obligations”. The UNHCR is stating the obvious to our Prime minister – no, you could not have done nothing. You cannot do nothing when people are dying.
Abela’s testimony was evasive at best, shockingly heartless at worst. “Were the vessels Dar es Salaam, Salve Regina and Tremar engaged by the Office of the Prime minister?” Abela dodged the question “What I know is that my head of secretariat (Clyde Caruana) spent 3 days and nights working flat out to save lives”. When pressed he claimed “we were coordinating, it doesn’t mean the vessel was engaged by the state”.
That vessel, Dar es Salaam 1 had been moored in Malta and proceeded to pick up survivors and return them to Libya which incarcerated them in a detention camp. New York Times and Avvenire reported that the Maltese government contracted private vessels docked in Malta to conduct the pushback operation under Malta’s co-ordination.
“What was the role of Neville Gafa?” Abela was asked. “He had no role other than passing on contacts” he replied. The New York Times reported that Gafa was asked by Malta’s government to arrange for the return of people to Libya”.
Robert Abela himself confirmed to journalists that “Gafa was asked to reach out to his contacts in Libya”. Those statements are contradictory. Did Gafa simply pass on his contact list to government or was he asked to call his Libyan friends?
What is not in doubt is that Malta co-ordinated the pushback, (confirmed in an official statement), of the 56 individuals to Libya – five of them were corpses by then. Another 7 were missing at sea. The survivors were incarcerated in Trik-al-Sikka.
International organisations, including the UN Human rights council, documented abuses against refugees in that centre. The pushback by Abela’s government was not only inhumane but a breach of Malta’s international obligations. Amnesty international highlighted that Malta “repeatedly breached its international obligations including by co-ordinating rescues that delivered people to Libya, which is not a place of safety”.
The UNHCR scathingly criticised the pushback reiterating that “Libya is a country at war and not a safe port for refugees to be returned to”. The Council of Europe commissioner for human rights wrote to Abela on 5th May urging him “to refrain from requesting private vessels to disembark rescued people in Libya”. He called on Abela “to respond effectively and urgently to any situation of distress at sea of which they become aware”.
Amnesty published several recommendations for Malta. Most importantly it recommended that Malta “publicly acknowledge the unlawfulness of the policies and practices leading to these human rights violations”. It recommended that Malta ratify the 2004 Amendments to the SOLAS and SAR Conventions and commit to interpreting distress at sea in a manner that ensures protection of life in line with its international obligations.
We are truly at rock bottom when international organisations need to remind Malta to respect human life. But Robert Abela is “proud of what we did even though we had no obligation”. That attitude explains why people are left to die at sea or on a Selmun roadside.