Yesterday, November 15th, Italian authorities ordered a 20-day detention of civil rescue ship Ocean Viking and imposed a fine of 3,300 €. The Ocean Viking is detained under Decree Law of January 2, 2023 No. 1, commonly called the “Piantedosi Decree”, despite the team fulfilling their indisputable legal obligation to rescue people from distress at sea while communication with the Libyan maritime authorities was virtually impossible.
After a first rescue of 33 persons in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region during the night from Friday to Saturday, November 11th, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) instructed the Ocean Viking to proceed to Ortona to disembark the survivors. Just before 3 am the same night, while underway to Ortona, the Ocean Viking received an alert to a boat in distress with 34 shipwrecked persons onboard in the vicinity, just 16 Nautical Miles from the ship. The Italian MRCC referred the Ocean Viking to the Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC) for instructions. In the two hours that followed, the Ocean Viking tried to communicate with the responsible authorities to seek coordination while 34 persons were at risk for imminent and grave danger or loss of life at sea. Today we know that at least one of them would have almost certainly died if rescue had not come.
That night, as most of the time, communication with the Libyan JRCC was almost impossible. Emails from the Ocean Viking went unanswered. Calls either went unanswered or there were no English speakers available. Finally, an officer answered, but only spoke broken English and merely asked for the exact location of the distress case. “There was no indication that rescue for the persons in distress was underway. No other maritime authorities provided information or assistance, despite the Ocean Viking’s efforts to seek coordination. The Ocean Viking was consequently not relieved of the obligation to render assistance. Meanwhile, the Ocean Viking was constantly reminded of the threat of detention by the Italian MRCC if a clear instruction to rescue was not given. Our only clear instruction was to proceed to Ortona without delay while people were in distress at sea, close to our rescue ship, in the middle of the night,” explains Luisa Albera, Search and Rescue Coordinator onboard Ocean Viking.
International law leaves no room for doubt: Leaving these 34 shipwrecked persons to their fate in the middle of the sea would have been illegal and morally wrong. The chances that this boat and the people traveling on it would have made it safely to shore without assistance were slim. One man rescued from that boat collapsed due to significant fuel inhalation and has required continuing oxygen therapy and fluid resuscitation. Without rescue, it could have resulted in severe respiratory distress or death. Many survivors, including minors, suffered extensive fuel burns and required urgent medical care. Today, the Ocean Viking is detained for not leaving them behind at sea in imminent danger of loss of life.
“We have always communicated transparently and proactively with all competent authorities at each step of our search and rescue activities and always sought coordination from the responsible authorities, but the Piantedosi Decree constitutes an impossible contradiction to maritime law: The duty to rescue applies even when the responsible authorities do not meet their duty to coordinate a rescue. Leaving shipwrecked people to an unknown fate at sea is illegal. Risking detentions and fines for not having received the right instructions from States responsible for coordinating the rescue poses a dilemma that no rescuer should face. It is unfathomable that a humanitarian organisation is penalized for carrying out lifesaving work and punished for the failure of the responsible authorities to effectively coordinate rescue activities in the central Mediterranean,” says Sophie Beau, Co-Founder of SOS MEDITERRANEE and General Director of SOS MEDITERRANEE France.
As a result of Decree Law of January 2, 2023 No. 1, NGO ships have been detained a total of 12 times this year, emptying the central Mediterranean of vital rescue assets during the deadliest year recorded in that stretch of sea since 2017. Just this weekend, multiple people perished and went missing while trying to cross the Mediterranean to seek safety. Instead of establishing an adequate response to the humanitarian needs at its southern border, Europe responds by incapacitating those trying to save lives.
Credit cover picture: Jérémie Lusseau / SOS MEDITERRANEE