Italy: Criminalisation of human rights defenders engaged in sea-rescue missions must end, says UN expert (Press Release)

GENEVA (9 February 2023) – A UN expert* today condemned the criminalisation and repression of human rights defenders involved in sea-rescue charities in Italy, ahead of the trial of NGO crew members in Sicily.

“The ongoing proceedings against human rights defenders from search and rescue NGOs are a darkening stain on Italy and the EU’s commitment to human rights,” said Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

In May 2022, preliminary criminal proceedings were opened against 21 people at the Court of Trapani – including four members of the Iuventa search and rescue crew, and human rights defenders from other civilian vessels – for alleged collaboration with people smugglers. They are being charged with aiding and abetting unauthorised immigration in connection with several rescue missions conducted in 2016 and 2017.

Prior to its seizure in 2017, the vessel Iuventa had been involved in the rescue of 14,000 people in distress at sea. “They are being criminalised for their human rights work. Saving lives is not a crime and solidarity is not smuggling,” Lawlor said.

The proceedings have been plagued by procedural violations, including failure to provide adequate interpretation for non-Italian defendants and translation of key documents. On 19 December 2022, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Interior applied to the court to join the case as plaintiffs, seeking compensation for damage claimed to have been caused by the alleged crimes.

“States that respect human rights promote the work of human rights defenders,” the Special Rapporteur said. “The Government’s decision to seek to join the case goes directly against this principle – it is a very disturbing sign,” she said.

The case against the Iuventa crew has proceeded in the backdrop of new restrictions imposed by the Italian authorities on civilian search and rescue. Since December 2022, NGO ships have consistently been instructed to disembark rescued persons in north and central Italy ports – several days of sailing away from rescue sites in the Central Mediterranean Sea. The practice has been accompanied by new regulations for civilian search and rescue introduced by Legislative Decree on 2 January 2023. Under the new rules, NGO captains are effectively prevented from carrying out multiple rescues in the course of a mission and must navigate towards the indicated port of disembarkation without delay, or face heavy sanction.

“The new legislation and instructions on ports of disembarkation are obstructing essential activities of civilian rescue ships,” Lawlor said. “They are widening the search and rescue gap in the Central Mediterranean, putting lives and rights at further risk. The legislation is incompatible with Italy’s obligations under international law and must be repealed.”

The Special Rapporteur has engaged with the Italian authorities to express her concerns.


* Ms Mary Lawlor (Ireland) is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

The statement is endorsed by Felipe González Morales is the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.

This statement has been updated to reflect the correct date of the Government’s request to join the proceedings.


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