Criminalizing sea rescue: ECCHR demands UN intervention

Italy – Rescue at sea – Sea-Watch 3

For years, Italy has intimidated, threatened and prosecuted sea rescuers who provide vital humanitarian assistance to refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean. Search and rescue (SAR) NGOs, like Sea-Watch from Germany, are trying to fill a gap left by state-run operations. The Italian government implemented stricter migration policies in 2017, criminalizing search and rescue. Italy has unlawfully arrested activists, imposed high fines, and run smear campaigns against them.

To counter the ongoing criminalization of sea rescues, on 29 January 2020, ECCHR submitted a letter to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders regarding Sea-Watch 3 crew members, in particular Captain Carola Rackete. ECCHR argues that the Italian authorities' targeted oppression of SAR workers violates international law. In October 2020, the UN special rapporteur publicly condemned Italy’s actions against the sea rescuers and demanded for the charges against Rackete to be dropped.


Following international maritime law obligations, in June 2019, Sea-Watch 3 rescued 53 people from distress at sea. However, no European state – in particular Italy, the nearest place of safety – allowed those rescued to disembark. In fact, Sea-Watch 3's rescue mission occurred while the Italian Council of Ministers were deciding on a new security decree. This policy enabled the Italian Minister of the Interior to prohibit Sea-Watch 3's transit through or stopping in Italian waters.

After 15 days of deadlock and an increasingly dire humanitarian emergency on board, Sea-Watch 3 entered the Italian port of Lampedusa despite the ban. When the rescue ship docked, Italian police arrested Capitan Rackete, accusing her of aiding and abetting illegal immigration.
Both Rackete and the NGO Sea-Watch face fines of 10,000 to 50,000 euro; Sea-Watch 3 was seized for half a year. Following her arrest, Rackete became the target of an unprecedented smear campaign in the media by the Italian government. It was characterized by hate speech and sexist insults.


ECCHR’s Sea-Watch 3 submission to the UN Special Rapporteur followed a similar complaint regarding Iuventa, another German NGO search and rescue ship, in November 2019.

Both cases are part of Italy’s established policy of preventing SAR activities, and rescuing refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean. Italy’s actions are directly contrary to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders as well as the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.


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UN Special Rapporteur

UN Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the UN to work on a specific mandate.

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Rescue at sea

Since 2014, search-and-rescue (SAR) NGOs have been constantly present in the Mediterranean. They seek to fill the rescue gap left by the lack of state-organized SAR operations by providing vital humanitarian assistance to those who have to make the life-threatening journey across the sea. However, several EU countries have started to implement stricter migration policies which encompass the criminalization of NGOs carrying out SAR activities.

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