On 27 January 2021, the UN Human Rights Committee (the Committee) adopted a historic decision related to the plight of refugees who are helplessly perishing in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Committee’s decision is related to the applicability of the well-known Maritime Law principle of “search and rescue” to distressful refugees in the high seas. The Committee deliberated on the failure of EU Member States (such as Italy) in fulfilling their international obligations emanating from Article 6 (right to life) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and search and rescue obligations emanating from the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue. The Committee’s decision comes as a very important development in the jurisprudence of international human rights law (IHRL) and international refugee law (IRL), two inter-related domains of international law, thus promoting this brief observation of my biweekly blog.
The Committee’s decision is related to an incident that took place in the Mediterranean Sea on 10 October 2013, involving the drowning of over 200 people, including 60 children. They perished despite the fact that there was a real possibility to save them through a search and rescue mission that could have been easily deployed by sending an Italian navy ship (ITS Libra), which was in close proximity to the refugees in distress. The victims were Syrians and Palestinians.
Although not a subject of discussion in the Committee’s decision, we also know that there was another heart-breaking incident from the 3rd of October 2013 (just one week before the above cited incident), involving the capsizing of an overcrowded migrant boat at the coast of Lampedusa, about less than a quarter-mile from the island. I had previously commented about this incident as follows:
“… more than 360 people have perished. From a list of 155 survivors, there was only one non-Eritrean. A particularly odious aspect of the Lampedusa Tragedy is the story of an Eritrean woman who gave birth while drowning in the sea. This was known after the corpse of the woman was found attached, by umbilical cord, to the corpse of a baby boy. The fact that the Lampedusa Tragedy happened at such a close distance to the coast of Italy was interpreted by many as an outcome of a dismal failure by Italian authorities, tacitly condoned by the rest of Europe (footnotes omitted).”
In the decision of 27 January 2021, the Committee clearly highlighted the fact that those lives have been lost in the face of a wanton disregard of an international obligation that must have been fulfilled by Italy. In my view, the blame in this regard (at least politically, if not legally) is not to be apportioned only to Italy, as it reflects a troubling tendency of a moral decadence at the European level – when it comes to the plight of distressed people in the high seas. For the victims and their loved ones, the decision of the Committee may not change a lot, but in terms of exposing the vulgarity of Europe’s moral decadence, it speaks volumes.
When writing about such topics, I do so by revisiting some of the greatest lessons I have learned in life. One such lesson comes from a well-known judgement of the Constitutional Court of South Africa (S v. Makwanyane and Another), in which the court skilfully used (perhaps for the first time in that context) the African concept of “Ubuntu” in explaining its reasoning to abolish the death penalty. At the centre of the court’s reasoning rests an emphasis on human dignity, this attribute being the source of all other personal rights.
Now, let’s shift the focus to Europe and have look for a moment at how the continent is behaving towards the human dignity of refugees and asylum seekers, stranded in the doorsteps of Europe, the off shores of the Mediterranean Sea, a big chunk of which makes part and parcel of the European Continent.
Falling from grace, Europe seems to be engaged in doing the unthinkable when it comes to the human dignity of refugees and asylum seekers, so much so one is forced to think that in the mental state of some European governments there might be a different “strand” or “stands” of the “human” in human dignity. How long will it take for European politicians to wake up and take a courageous move about certain uncomfortable truths regarding the travesty of injustice unfolding it the Mediterranean Sea?
While much is being said by European actors about the root causes of forced migration in remote areas, mostly armed conflict and political repression, nothing is being done here in Europe to hold to account those powerful entities who have given a blind eye and a deaf ear to the suffering of helpless victims in the off shores of Europe. Hypocrisy?
It may be relevant to conclude this brief reflection by emphasising on the humanist imperative of the philosophical underpinnings of Ubuntu, from which European politicians may need to tap some wisdom. Ubuntu’s underlying assumption denotes an interactive ethic by which humanity is essentially defined by the interaction of community members towards each other. The humanist and collective emphasis inherent in the concept of Ubuntu emanates from the indigenous knowledge system (IKS) of Africa, which is a hitherto under-researched area of knowledge. In most cases, the basis of knowledge for modern political thoughts on liberty and the ideals of a free and open society are often traced to what is generally known as the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, a period of time mostly associated with Western European philosophers and thinkers of certain era. What about doing some soul searching and looking for lessons from other cultures as well, because certain aspects of Europe’s moral values seem to be under incessant attack due to lack of political courage to look the beast in the eye.
Photo source: https://malachiss.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/fire.jpg