Commentary. NGOs, like any organizations owning ships, are obliged to follow international law and cannot follow ad hoc codes that have no legal value.

We don’t need a new Minniti-style code for NGO rescue ships

The common thread uniting those who want to criminalize life-saving NGOs is to repeat the same stale accusations and apply the same method of “special rules.” The tried-and-true logic is to propose specific provisions for one group, the NGOs, thus implying that the latter do not abide by the rules, are doing “dirty work,” and therefore there is a need for an extra code of conduct just for them.

An attempt is thus made to obscure the simple but incontrovertible fact that NGOs, like any organizations owning ships, are obliged to follow international law and cannot follow ad hoc codes that have no legal value.

Merchant ships, which Minister Tajani spoke of in passing during the meeting with his EU counterparts, will take action if they have to, but they will avoid this whenever possible, because they risk having to pause their commercial activity for weeks or months. The assumptions circulated to support this new “code” are really ridiculous and embarrassing, and they are brought in to justify rules of conduct whose breach can be punished by heavy administrative fines and, most importantly, by not being allowed to arrive on Italian shores.

Let us try to analyze the main provisions of the proposed code.

  1. NGOs must prove that they intervene only in case of danger: dinghies and boats that are meant for accommodating 10 to 20 people and have 5 to 10 times as many on board are objectively in danger. Ship captains must intervene, otherwise they are personally criminally liable.
  2. NGOs must communicate about their intervention and coordinate with the relevant authorities: they are doing this at all times, there is ample public documentation to prove it, and each time they are giving all the information to the different authorities of the countries involved. The authorities, however, never respond, in order to wash their hands of the matter and avoid pointing them to the nearest safe harbor, as the law requires.
  3. NGOs are asked not to communicate their location to boats that are about to leave Libyan or Tunisian beaches – that is, they are being accused of setting up encounters with those who haven’t left yet. This is an accusation that, according to the Foreign Minister, is supposedly supported by Frontex documents. That European agency has been repeatedly accused of rejections of migrants, which, we will recall, are illegal, and its director resigned at the end of April this year following an investigation by the European anti-fraud agency. Not a neutral and authoritative source by any means. And Tajani’s accusation is completely unfounded, invented specifically to try to link NGOs to traffickers. There is no evidence for any such link, as the many Italian judicial investigations have shown: this is pure slander.

As in the case of its notorious predecessor, this new code would impose behaviors that for the most part are already required by law and that NGOs have always respected to the letter, but would also introduce illegitimate and unworkable elements, and, above all, fuel the suspicion that those who are operating in the Mediterranean to do search and rescue work are doing so in bad faith and in league with the human traffickers. Even though, as has been known for years, the traffickers are largely the same persons who are receiving money, equipment and training from the Italian government and the EU. The evidence can be found in the reports of international institutions and investigations of Italian courts, not in the propaganda sheets of political parties and politicians.

Meanwhile, the governments of Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Malta have signed a completely unjustified and perplexing “joint statement.” They are invoking international legislation while de facto denying it and trying to criminalize those who save lives. They are asserting once again their claims of victimhood on account of migrant landings, without taking into account that their governments are also processing asylum seekers who arrive by land and air: it makes no sense that only those who arrive by sea should be redistributed.

A code is not what is needed; nor pointless new “agreements” to prevent people from fleeing war and persecution or new procedures to be able to more easily deport people without a residence permit, goals that the governments involved are likely to focus on in the coming weeks. All these years we have witnessed endless negotiations in numerous meetings of EU ministers, which always ended with promises of legislative changes and interventions aimed only at increasingly preventing all mobility for people seeking protection and improving the effectiveness of refoulement and repatriation activities.

Nothing has been done on public search and rescue activities and nothing on legal and safe channels of access. So, this is nothing new. It’s the same old state-sponsored racism, which benefits and fuels the activity of human traffickers and causes death and injustice.

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