To continue their Search and Rescue activity, the NGOs must respect eleven rules, ranging from a ban on entering Libyan waters to the obligation to have court police on board their vessels. The NGO code of conduct has been developed by the Italian government and will be discussed today in a long meeting at the Ministry of the Interior, in which all the main NGOs operating in the Mediterranean will be present. Some of them, such as MOAS, have already said they will accept the regulation, while others are wavering. Yet not accepting the rules would mean ending the Search and Rescue activity, as the ships would be prevented from docking in at Italian ports. On the other hand, accepting the rules would mean violating the internal statutes of some of the NGOs. But what does the code of conduct really entail? And what are the most controversial points?
The first point relates to the total ban on entering Libyan waters: Libyan waters, the rules state, can only be entered if there is a clear threat to human life at sea. The rules also prohibit the on-board transponder (the electronic system which identifies a vessel's route) from being turned off. Furthermore, in order to avoid contact with human traffickers, the ships are forbidden to use telecommunication or to send light signals which could be used by the departing migrant vessels. There is also a ban on effecting transferrals of passengers between vessels, whether Italian or international ships, except in cases of emergency: instead, the code states that following a rescue operation the NGO ships must complete their mission by taking people directly to a secure port. There is then a ban on blocking the Libyan Coast Guard's search and rescue operations, with the aim of allowing local authorities to control their own territorial waters. Following this there is one of the most contested point, being the necessity to allow agents from the court police on board, in order to investigate human trafficking. Furthermore, in the interest of transparency, the financial sources for the rescue missions need to be declared. There is then the obligation to communicate all sightings and consequent interventions at sea to the MRCC (the Italian Maritime Coordination Centre in Rome); the obligation to cooperate with public security agents in locations of migrants' arrival and, finally, the obligation to communicate all information which might be of use in investigations to the Italian police authorities.
The code has been the object of a range of criticisms from human rights organisations. The Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI) has claimed that the regulation could lead to a “mess of international law”. According to the association, the regulation represents “an attempt by Italy to regulate the conduct of vessels including those under the flag of a different state and outside of those waters over which Italy has competence in international law. There is no international treaty nor practice which indicating the regulatory power of the state connected to a port relating to the navigation of ships which have carried out rescue operations and request access to said port.” Italy thus cannot impose the code of conduct on vessels from other countries. And this is not the only problem. In the case of vessels from foreign NGOs that do not sign the code of conduct, Italy cannot easily impede their docking in Italian ports. Amnesty International has provided a very clear comment, according to whom the code will produce simply more death at sea. “The code of conduct for the NGOs saving lives in the Mediterranean Sea, in our view an immoral proposition, could lead to more lives being put in danger” – Iverna McGowan emphasises, director of the Amnesty International office for European Institutions. “The attempts to limit the NGOs' search and rescue operations risks putting thousands of human lives at risk by blocking the rescue vessels from entering the dangerous waters near to the Libyan coast.” According to Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, “any code of conduct, if necessary, would need to render the rescue operations more effective at saving human lives” and “would need to be agreed upon through previous consultation with the groups involved in search and rescue, and be applied to all vessels carrying out rescue operations in the Mediterranean and not connected to the landing operations.”
Translation by Richard Braude