Reportage. A maritime law expert says there’s nothing preventing any kind of boat from rescuing people. ‘Saving lives at sea is an obligation for all types of vessels.’

Salvini calls Sea Watch a ‘yacht’ in latest anti-NGO propaganda

“The Sea Watch is classified as a yacht,” said Interior Minister Matteo Salvini accusingly a few days ago, referring to alleged irregularities in the registration of the ship belonging to the German NGO. Immediately afterwards, Transport Minister Toninelli echoed the insinuation from his Facebook page: “We are talking about a vessel registered as a ‘pleasure yacht,’ which is not appropriate to carry out rescue operations for migrants at sea. That seems obvious to me, since it is essentially a yacht. In Italy, this is not allowed.”

However, the word “yacht” used by the two ministers is completely inappropriate, at least according to the meaning of the word has in Italian: “The Sea Watch 3 is classified by the Dutch authorities as a ‘pleasure craft,’ which corresponds to the Italian classification of nave da diporto (‘leisure vessel’),” explained Paolo Turci, a maritime law expert with the Genoa Bar. “Since it flies the Dutch flag, the registration and intended use must be assessed under the rules of that country. That being said, the various national laws largely codify similar criteria, since the matter in question is regulated by special international conventions.”

He also clarified the issue of the alleged inability of the vessel to perform rescue operations. “First of all, it should be pointed out that saving lives at sea is an obligation for all types of vessels. All of them can become rescue ships. That said, some vessels can be more or less adapted for ‘giving assistance’—for instance, deep sea tugs—but this classification is tied exclusively to their specialization in providing assistance to other ships, or in any case assisting in the salvage of material goods. I don’t think one can talk about a special category of ‘rescue ships’ for people.”

Turci also clarified another point that is being invoked by the anti-NGO propaganda, namely the issue of what a ‘safe harbor’ is: “International law sets out the duty to unload the migrants at the closest safe harbor, with an obligation for the state to which that port belongs to welcome them. However, one cannot call a ‘safe harbor’ one where the survivors are likely to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment. In the past, several court rulings have excluded the Libyan ports from this category. As for rescues performed in the Strait of Sicily, from a geographical point of view, the nearest safe harbors might be Lampedusa, Malta, or the Tunisian harbors. But it should be clarified that the ship doesn’t violate the law if it does not follow this provision because of a refusal by the port authority in question.”

This is exactly what took place in the case of the Sea Watch 3: the Netherlands (the country of the ship’s flag) had submitted a regular request for shelter during the bad weather to the Tunisian authorities, but received no response. “Only if it can be proven that the outright purpose of the collection of the shipwrecked migrants was as a cover for the activity of favoring illegal immigration, we would be looking at a crime,” the maritime law specialist added. “However, as with all crimes, before deciding and imposing a punishment, it is necessary to have the full extent of evidence proving that the crime took place.” It does not look like such proof is forthcoming—Toninelli’s threat of “sequestering” the boat made via social media on Friday morning was rebuked an hour later by the spokeswoman for Sea Watch Italy, Giorgia Linardi.

On Saturday, the results of the investigation by Catanian chief prosecutor Zuccaro cleared the ship of any wrongdoing: the investigation “did not reveal any criminal relevance” to the conduct of the ship’s crew, found the rescue operation lawful and did not find irregularities with the ship’s registration. However, as of Sunday evening, the Sea Watch 3 is still waiting for the approval of the port authorities to leave Catania and return to the search and rescue zone.

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