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Migrant boat disaster: those responsible 'could face legal action' | World news

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Category: World News
Published on Thursday, 29 March 2012 Written by Super User
Italian coastguards at Lampedusa

Italian coastguards help a refugee out of a boat on arrival at the Italian island of Lampedusa. Photograph: Roberto Salomone/AFP/Getty Images

The European rapporteur charged with investigating the case of 63 African migrants who were "left to die" in the Mediterranean last year has warned those responsible could end up in court.

On Wednesday, the Guardian revealed the findings of a damning official report into the fateful voyage, which saw the sub-Saharan refugees drifting in the sea for two weeks while dying of thirst and starvation, even though their boat had been located by European authorities and emergency distress calls had been issued to all other ships in the area.

The report blamed a collective set of "human, institutional and legal" failures for the inaction, labelling it a "dark day for Europe" and concluding that large loss of life could have been avoided if the various agencies in the area – Nato, its warships, the Italian coastguard and individual European states – had fulfilled their basic obligations.

Survivors claim they made contact with a military helicopter and large naval vessel, both of which abandoned the migrant boat without attempting a rescue.

On Thursday, the Council of Europe will use a meeting in Brussels to formally adopt a resolution demanding a major overhaul of search and rescue procedures in the Mediterranean, and call on Nato and its constituent countries to release crucial satellite imagery from the area in an effort to pinpoint exactly which military units encountered the migrants.

Those photos could be used as a basis for legal action against those responsible for ignoring the migrants' desperate pleas for help.

Tineke Strik, a Council of Europe parliamentarian and the report's author, said: "This is only the beginning, and in the long run there is no doubt that if more evidence is gathered the question may arise about whether a crime has been committed here. We are talking about everything from potential breaches of the international maritime conventions to article two of the European court of human rights, which protects the right to life. There are many legal possibilities."

A group of European human rights advocates is considering launching lawsuits against some of the main actors in the affair. In the report, Nato's high command and the Spanish navy are singled out for criticism. A series of unanswered questions remain, in particular:

• Why did Nato initially state it had no record of any distress calls regarding the migrant boat, only to later admit that a fax from the Italian coastguard detailing the boat's plight and position had been received by its headquarters in Naples on 27 March?

• Given that Nato was aware the migrant boat was in trouble and that one of the units under its command – the Mendez Núñez, a Spanish frigate – was in the immediate vicinity, why was no rescue attempted?

• Nato claims it forwarded the emergency message to all its units, but the Spanish ministry of defence has insisted the Mendez Núñez did not receive any communication regarding the migrant boat. Who is right?

• If there was any confusion over the urgency of the distress calls, as Nato has claimed, why was clarification not sought from the Italian maritime rescue co-ordination centre in Rome?

• As well as its fax to Nato headquarters, the Italian coastguard also broadcast multiple distress calls using the Inmarsat and Hydrolant systems which all vessels, including military ships, are supposed to be equipped to receive. These messages were labelled 'Priority: Distress', the highest emergency phrase possible under the international search and rescue convention. Did the Mendez Núñez receive these messages, and if so why was no action taken?

"The main message in the Council of Europe report is that many different actors – Nato, individual warships under Nato command, the Italian authorities, as well as fishing vessels – could have saved these 63 human beings, but didn't," said Judith Sunderland, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"Many questions remain unanswered, and it's high time that Nato and its member states conduct serious inquiries into what led to these tragic deaths, and examine what more can be done to prevent further deaths at sea."

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