Interceptions at sea and returns of migrants and refugees to Libya constitute a crime against humanity

The Hague must investigate the responsibility of EU officials


The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), with the support of Sea-Watch, has filed a Communication to the International Criminal Court (ICC) concerning the commission of crimes against humanity against migrants and refugees who have been intercepted at sea and systematically returned to and detained in Libya. The organizations are urging the ICC to investigate the individual criminal responsibility of high-ranking officials of EU member states and EU agencies regarding multiple severe deprivations of liberty that began with interceptions at sea between 2018 and 2021. Alleged co-perpetrators include high level European politicians such as the former Italian Interior Ministers, Marco Minniti and Matteo Salvini, the current and former Prime Ministers of Malta Robert Abela and Joseph Muscat, the former High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, the former Executive Director of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri as well as Italian and Maltese Rescue Coordination Centers members and EUNAV FOR MED and the European External Action Service (EEAS) officials.

Since 2016, EU agencies and EU member states have increased their capacity-building and operational support for the so-called Libyan Coast Guard by providing funding, patrol boats, equipment and training, as well as by directly participating in specific interceptions through, for instance, providing information on the location of boats in distress. Such support and collaboration tends to demonstrate the decisive role that high-ranking EU officials play in the deprivation of liberty of migrants and refugees fleeing Libya. The Communication is based on first-hand evidence obtained through Sea-Watch and other sea rescue and civil society organizations, as well as investigative journalists, and analyzes 12 incidents of deprivation of liberty at sea, highlighting the individual responsibility of high-ranking perpetrators.

Interceptions at sea and subsequent returns of migrants and refugees to Libya are not search and rescue missions that save lives. Instead, ECCHR argues in the Communication that these operations constitute crimes against humanity in the form of the severe deprivation of physical liberty as they are part of a widespread system of exploitation, which targets such vulnerable groups in Libya. The ICC must therefore investigate the collaboration between these European and Libyan actors and bring those responsible to justice.

Systematic exploitation and abuse of migrants and refugees have been pervasive in Libya since at least 2011, and have included acts of arbitrary detention, torture, murder, persecution, sexual violence, as well as enslavement. These abuses may amount to crimes against humanity, as ECCHR, together with FIDH and LFJL, argued in another Communication to the ICC in 2021. Despite knowledge of those crimes, officials of EU agencies as well as of Italy and Malta have strengthened their collaboration with Libya to prevent refugees and migrants from fleeing Libya by sea. 

“The current system of EU support for the capacities and operations of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard along the Central Mediterranean route is not saving anyone’s life. The evidence provided in the Communication suggests that these operations may amount to  severe deprivations of liberty as crimes against humanity,” says Andreas Schueller, Program Director for International Crimes and Accountability at ECCHR. “The inhumane treatment and detention conditions of migrants and refugees in Libya have been well known for many years. The country is not a safe place for migrants and refugees. Under international maritime law, people rescued at sea must be disembarked in a place of safety. No one should be returned to Libya after being rescued at sea.”

ECCHR and Sea-Watch demand:

  • A thorough investigation by the ICC of the alleged crimes against humanity committed against migrants and refugees at sea and subsequently in Libya, including those perpetrated by high-ranking officials of EU member states and EU agencies;
  • An immediate end to any policy, funding or program by the EU and its member states which aims to externalize European borders by containing migrants in Libya;
  • A civilian, non-military, state-financed and -coordinated, area-wide European SAR operation that functions in accordance with maritime and human rights law across the Mediterranean, and that fulfills the duty to render assistance to people and disembark them in a safe place.

In November 2021, with the support of its partners FIDH and LFJL, ECCHR filed a Communication to the ICC calling for the opening of an investigation into the responsibility of armed groups, militias and Libyan state actors involved in the commission of crimes against humanity against migrants and refugees in Libya. For the past 11 years, the ICC has been investigating the situation in Libya but, thus far, has failed to  open a case on crimes specifically committed against migrants and refugees. In the wake of ECCHR’s 2021 Communication, the ICC and state prosecutors from four countries joined forces, and recently, two Eritrean suspects were extradited to the Netherlands and Italy respectively. The ICC must increase these efforts by taking the long overdue steps to end the cycle of abuse that remains unaccounted for in Libya, and bring Libyan, as well as European perpetrators to justice for crimes against humanity.

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To counter injustice with legal interventions – this is the aim and daily work of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.

ECCHR is an independent, non-profit legal and educational organization dedicated to enforcing civil and human rights worldwide. It was founded in 2007 by Wolfgang Kaleck and other international human rights lawyers to protect and enforce the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other human rights declarations and national constitutions, through legal means.

Together with those affected and partners worldwide, ECCHR uses legal means to end impunity for those responsible for torture, war crimes, sexual and gender-based violence, corporate exploitation and fortressed borders.

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