Once again the United Nations has blamed Italy for its migration policies. The new warning came in the form of the May 15 letter signed by Beatriz Balbin, Chief of the Special Procedures Branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The letter was delivered through the Permanent Representative of Italy to the UN in Geneva, Gian Lorenzo Cornado, into the hands of Enzo Moavero, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs.
This is not the first admonition of that kind: in November 2018, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had harshly criticized several aspects of the security decree delivered by the Italian Minister of Interior and chief of the far-right “League” party, Matteo Salvini. Under the U.N. experts’ scrutiny, the abolition of the “humanitarian protection”, a form of protection for those vulnerable migrants who couldn’t be considered refugees under the current regulations. Last September, Ms. Bachelet had also announced the deployment of a team of inspectors in Italy in order to “assess the reported sharp increase in acts of violence and racism against migrants, persons of African descent and Roma.”
Between the first and the last of the UN’s warnings, Mr. Salvini issued two new directives in order to put an end to NGO’s activities in the Mediterranean Sea, and in particular to stop those of the Mediterranea NGO’s “Mare Jonio” boat. With the “new” security decree, Mr. Salvini aims to impose expensive economic sanctions on those who rescue migrants at sea, “failing to respect the obligations established by the International Conventions”. Indeed, he wants to set fines from 3,500 euros up to 5,000 euros for each migrant transported (this measure has been removed in the last review), prescribing, for the repeated instances, the suspension or the revocation of the license for up to 12 months if the ship flies the flag of Italy.
The U.N. experts’ analysis is crystal-clear: “There are reasonable grounds to believe that the Directive, due also to the time of its release, was issued with the aim of directly targeting the search and rescue operations of the NGO boat Mare Jonio, namely by preventing it from accessing Italian territorial waters and ports.” “We are deeply concerned about the approach taken by the Minister of Interior against the Mare Jonio through these directives, which are not based on, and have not been confirmed by, any decision by the competent judicial authority.”
Why are the UN experts criticizing the security decree, if it makes reference to the “International Conventions”? “While we appreciate the reference made to international standards in the Directive,” they underline in the document, “we wish to draw attention to your Excellency’s Government to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982,” on the basis of which “every State has the duty to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost.”
Last June, the Libyan Government of National Accord created their own “Search and Rescue Zone”, which has controversially legitimized the withdrawal of the European NGOs’ ships operating in the Mediterranean Sea, and the criminalization of those who refuse to take the migrants back to the Libyan Coast Guard.
However, according to the U.N. experts, the security decree fails to take into account the principle of non-refoulement laid down in the 1951 Geneva Convention. “In April 2019, following the escalation of military action in Libya, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights stressed that Libya is not a safe port of returning and called on the European Union and its members to swiftly and collectively implement a coherent, human rights-based response to maritime migration from Libya”, the U.N letter notes.
Those recommendations didn’t seem to have troubled Mr. Salvini, who called upon the United Nations to take care about different kinds of problems, such as the Venezuelan crisis: “An international body, that costs the taxpayers billions of euros, and has among its members North Korea and Turkey—totalitarian governments—, lecturing Italy about human rights and me about the security decree, it is so hilarious”, he said. Sources from the Ministry of Interior ironically observed: “The Ministry of Interior didn’t undervalue the letter from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, especially in the light of its competence and U.N.’s authority on this matter. Authority testified by some of the U.N. member states, such as Turkey and North Korea.”
However, not even the office of the High Commissioner seemed to be willing to give up: its experts confirmed their stance in a press release, underlining that the right to life and the principle of non-refoulement should always prevail over national legislation or specific measures possibly adopted in the name of national security. Because of that, the United Nations urged Italian authorities to stop jeopardizing the lives of migrants, including refugees and victims of human trafficking. This approach—the U.N. experts said—is not in line with international law and with international humanitarian law.
The security decree that Mr. Salvini brought to the May 20 Council of Ministers has been in some parts modified. In fact, it tightens up the fines for NGOs rescuing people within the SAR zone without cooperating with relevant authorities, while it removes the sanction for each migrant transported.
During the daily press briefing at the U.N., we asked Stéphane Dujarric, the Secretary General’s spokesperson, about Mr. Guterres’s view on this controversy. “The Special Rapporteurs play a very critical and important role,” he said referring to the U.N. experts who wrote the letter, “within the human rights architecture in the U.N., but obviously they are independent”. Mr. Dujarric also underlined that, without getting into the specifics of the law, “SG’s message to every world leader is consistent—it’s about how the international law that relates to the protection of refugees should be respected, and it has been signed on to by all the signatories of the Refugee Convention, and that refugees and migrants need to be treated with dignity and respect of human rights and with solidarity.”
Asked whether the United Nations and the Secretary-General are putting enough pressure on the Italian Government, Guterres’ spokesperson responded: “I can only speak for the Secretary-General, but I think that the SG’s position and the message he sends to the world leaders on refugees, on migrants, is clear and unequivocal, and that is the message he sends around the world. Every country has its own internal debate and different policies, our position, and SG’s position—which frankly is the same in public and private—has remained unchanged.”