Salah Marghani joins us for this contribution to the ongoing symposium on Libya and International Justice. Salah is a lawyer and human rights activist. From November 2012 – August 2014, he was Libya’s Minister of Justice. His efforts for justice and accountability were recognized by Human Rights Watch in 2012, which awarded him with the prestigious “Alison des Forges” Human Rights Defender Award. Make sure to check out HRW’s Hanan Salah’s piece over at Opinio Juris today as well.
It was seemingly innocuous. On 2 February 2017, the Italian Government, supported by EU, prompted a Libyan UN-proclaimed Presidential Council or (GNA), to sign a vaguely albeit smartly worded memorandum of understanding (MOU). The clear objective of the MOU was to stem the flow of refugees and migrants across the Libyan sea frontier towards Italian shores. Under the cover of the MOU and on 26 July 26th2017, GNA leader Faiz Assarraj signed and presented to the Italian Premier in Rome a letter inviting the Italian Navy to enter Libyan territorial waters and to station elements in the seaport of Tripoli, with the declared aim to jointly patrol the Libyan waters to catch and return fleeing migrants.
By the end of 2017, in an almost unbelievable move, fiercely defended by the EU, the poorly equipped Libyan Port and Maritime Transport Authority claimed and notified the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) of a vastly extended exclusive Libyan Search and Rescue (SAR) region. The zone extended 76 Nautical Miles deep into the Central Mediterranean. The SAR declaration was clearly unjustified and in total disregard to endangered fleeing refugees and migrants afloat at sea. Smartly disguised in an innocent format, it was also patently in breach of humanitarian values. Libya is a country with almost no navy or real coast guard, a country enduring an ongoing civil war, with fractured governments and forces violently competing for power and wealth. Libya could hardly meet its obligations in such a huge SAR area, one which far exceeds the depths assigned to the real and fully equipped navies of Italy and Europe. Italy and EU went as far as calling off vital SAR operations under (Sofia) in the Central Mediterranean and assigning the same to the infamous Libyan Coast Guard.
The Assarraj Government and Coast Guard was directed by the Italians and the EU to confront International NGOs working to save the lives of refugees and migrants or who were taking them to safe ports. There were many incidents where lifesaving operations by NGO vessels were confronted and prevented from doing their work. Such harassment impeded NGOs, including MSF, Sea Watch and others. In some instances, refugees lost their lives as a result.
Lack of morality and illegalities
Italian Interior Minister (at the time) Matteo Salvini ordered the closure of all Italian seaports to all rescue vessels, causing havoc and many casualties. The Italian government, followed by Malta and other rather distant EU countries and aided by the Assarraj Government, are blocking the efforts of rendering assistance in total disregard to the safety of the lives of refugees and migrants as well as in breach of spirit of Article 98 UNCLOSand the SAR Convention. The Libyan Coast Guard, practically, directed by Italy under the current arrangement, are not only pushing for the disembarkation of any refugees fished at Libya Vast SAR region to unsafe Libyan ports where they are handed back to their original captors , it has effectively closed or severely impeded such disembarkation chances to other safe ports in the region. Continue reading