What does international maritime law say about rescuing refugees from drowning? | Politics and Economy -

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A strike organized by Italian criminal lawyers Tuesday (July 9, 2019) without a closed hearing of the captain of the Dutch-flagged watch boat C-Watch 3 operated by the German non-governmental Watchwatch. The captain is subject to his investigation into Italy for allegedly inciting illegal immigration and resisting the orders of public officials and a military vessel. Italian authorities have accused the 31-year-old German activist of taking the ship, which was carrying 40 immigrants, on the Italian island of Lampedusa on June 29 after two weeks at sea.

In order to shed further light on the issue from a legal point of view, Mahajer News conducted the following dialogue with the Professor of Public Maritime Law and International Maritime Law at the University of Hamburg, Germany, Alexander Bruils:

Are there any international agreements to save those at risk of drowning at sea?

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SOLAR) and the 1974 International Convention for the Protection of Human Life (SOLAS) oblige signatory parties to save the lives of people threatened by drowning. Compulsion is primarily the right of States, and it also applies to vessels bearing the flags of the signatory States.

Alexander Proelß - Professor für Öffentliches Seerecht / Seevölkerrecht (A. Proelß)

Professor of Public Maritime Law and International Maritime Law at the University of Hamburg, Germany, Alexander Bruils

Is the nearest port to the rescue area obliged to receive rescuers? How did the law regulate this point?

On the one hand, rescuers must be transported to a safe place, but the law does not clearly state what a "safe place" is. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has noted several times that the identification of a safe place is a matter subject to a case-by-case basis. The crucial point here is where it is possible to end the state of emergency faster and more effectively than others.

On the other hand, it is not possible to find in the above-mentioned agreements that States must open their ports to rescuers and allow ships to dock there. For maritime nations here a large margin is up to their estimates.

Coastal States are obliged to allow ships to enter their ports and dock if there is an emergency on board the vessel that threatens the lives of passengers and crew such as water shortages, disease or technical problems that threaten the ship itself. Within the European Union, rescue vessels of the European Agency for Monitoring and Protection of External Borders (Frontex) are excluded from this condition, meaning that they can enter and dock without an emergency.

Carola Rakelet announced before entering the port of Lampedusa that there is an emergency. Could Italy have prevented the entry of the ship, even after the Rakeet declared a state of emergency 36 hours before entry?

In my estimation, what happened since the successful rescue operation and the fact that people who were taken from the rescue ship and provided medical assistance before entering the port of Lampedusa all provide good reasons for an emergency.

In the event of conflicts of national, European and international laws, which of them has the final and final word?

The relationship between different levels of laws is determined primarily by national laws. But in the European case, the laws of the European Union are to be implemented if they are in conflict with national laws.

With regard to the above-mentioned agreements, signatory States are bound by what they have signed and must apply at the national level. This may justify the breach of national immigration regulations under the pretext of the need to rescue those threatened by drowning at sea.

How did international law regulate maritime areas?

Department of International Maritime Law Sea to several areas States are entitled to exercise sovereign rights to varying degrees. Internal and regional waters are two of the sovereign areas of the coastal State, in the sense that full national law is primarily applicable. There is an exception in the territorial waters, which extend for a distance of 12 nautical miles, where vessels are entitled to peaceful passage.


After the territorial waters come exclusive trade zone, which can extend to a maximum of 200 nautical miles, but does not belong to the sovereign areas of the coastal state. But coastal States can exercise specific sovereign rights, especially the exploitation of living and non-living resources.

After the economic zone comes the high seas, or so-called international waters that all ships are allowed to use. With the exception of vessels flying flags of their countries and other limited cases such as combating pirates, no country has the right to exercise exclusive sovereign rights in international waters.

In any of the aforementioned maritime areas, rescue operations are permitted, under what conditions?

The need to save those threatened by drowning is a binding and uncontested matter on the high seas and the exclusive economic zone. This applies only after coastal States or several States notify the International Maritime Organization (IMO) of a maritime area for search and rescue. This area may include more than one of the above marine areas.

However, the identification of the search and rescue area does not, on the other hand, prevent the passage or presence of foreign vessels in that area. The claim that authorities hold ships flying foreign flags is legally unacceptable.

"Si-3 Watch" was sailing under the Dutch flag. Is Amsterdam responsible for the ship and its rescuers?

The Netherlands must fulfill its obligations under international maritime law here as a flag State, but it is not a rule under which the responsibility of rescuers of a country to which the rescue ship is flying is flagged.

Italian Interior Minister Mathieu Salveni has accused the "refugee savior", German Carola Rakeet, of helping illegal immigration. How do you see it?

I am not familiar with Italian law, but states must abide by their obligations under international maritime law and apply them at the national level. Italy is a signatory to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) and the 1974 International Convention for the Protection of Human Life (SOLAS). In its Judgments on the need to save those threatened by drowning. Italy has also harmonized its national legislation with those agreements.

Legally, is there a difference between the rescue operations that happen by chance and the ones that are organized by civil society organizations?

The country that negotiated the 1979 International Maritime Search and Rescue Convention (SAR) did not take into account the systematic processes of civil society organizations. According to international law, there are no laws to regulate the rescue operations carried out by community organizations. Even if approved, it will not be problematic, because the duty to rescue those threatened by drowning applies to all ships (commercial, civil society organizations, etc.). What is worth mentioning here is that the agreement does not differentiate between those at risk of drowning according to their nationality, origin and any other background.

Mahajer News – Khaled Salama

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