GENEVA – Italy failed to protect the right to life of more than 200 migrants who were on board a vessel that sank in the Mediterranean Sea in 2013, the UN Human Rights Committee has found.
In a decision published today, the Human Rights Committee said that Italy had failed to respond promptly to various distress calls from the sinking boat, which was carrying more than 400 adults and children. The State party also failed to explain the delay in dispatching its navy ship, ITS Libra, which was located only about an hour away from the scene.
The Committee’s decision responds to a joint complaint lodged by three Syrians and a Palestine national, who survived the accident but lost their families. On 10 October 2013, they arrived in Zuwarah, a fishing port in Libya, and joined a large group of people mostly escaping from Syria. They boarded a fishing vessel and set to sea around 1:00am. A few hours later, water was flooding in after the vessel was shot by a boat flying a Berber flag in international waters, 113 km south of the Italian island of Lampedusa and 218 km south of Malta.
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 1pm that as they were in the Maltese search and rescue zone and thus the Italian authorities had forwarded their distress call to the Maltese authority. In spite of the emergency, the Italian operator only passed on to them the phone number of Malta’s Rescue Coordination Centre.
The migrants made several, increasingly desperate, phone calls to the Rescue Coordination Centre and the Armed Force of Malta between 1pm and 3pm. When a Maltese patrol boat arrived at the scene at 5:50pm, the vessel had already capsized. As per Malta’s urgent request, Italy finally instructed its navy ship ITS Libra, which was in the boat’s vicinity, to come to the rescue after 6pm.
As a result of the delayed action, over 200 people, including 60 children, drowned. Some surviving migrants took the Italian authorities to various courts and to the Committee as Italy failed to take appropriate measures to save their relatives, and thus violated their right to life.
“It is a complex case. 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,” committee member Hélène Tigroudja said.
“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 effective remedy to those who lost their families in the accident.
A parallel claim brought against Malta was rejected by the Committee as the plaintiffs did not bring legal proceedings before courts in Malta, which is one of the requirements, prior to filing their case to the Committee.