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Italy and Malta accused of complicity in crimes against humanity in the Libyan refugee crisis

Written by Eric Apim on Tuesday, January 18th 2022 à 12:40 | Read 767 times

Several NGOs denounce the support given to the Libyan coast guard by Malta and Italy to prevent refugees from reaching the EU (photo: UNHCR/Hereward Holland)
Several NGOs denounce the support given to the Libyan coast guard by Malta and Italy to prevent refugees from reaching the EU (photo: UNHCR/Hereward Holland)
LIBYA / ITALY / MALTA. Three NGOs (UpRights, Adala for all and Strali) submitted a communication to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Monday evening, 17 January 2022. In this document, they denounce war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by armed groups in refugee detention centres in Libya.

Led by Italian and Libyan lawyers, the three associations also accuse Italy and Malta of helping the Libyan coast guard in their mission. These two countries provide their equipment, ensure maintenance and train these men. Rome and Valletta also coordinate operations with these coastguards to ensure the return of migrants to Libya and prevent them from coming into exile at home.

An agreement signed in 2017 between the Italian and Libyan authorities was renewed in 2020 for three years. Italy has offered 42 Zodiac-type boats for rapid interception. Faced with a request from eight NGOs, France gave up in December 2019 on offering six twelve-metre Sillinger semi-rigid vessels to the Libyan coastguard.

UNHCR calls for an appropriate plan

This complicity of Italy and Malta is perceived by the three NGOs as a support to the denounced war crimes and crimes against humanity. In October 2021, during a debate at the University of Amsterdam, Alessandro Pizzuti, co-founder of the non-profit initiative UpRights based in The Hague, had stressed "the applicability of international criminal law to abuses committed against migrants. While crimes against migrants are generally considered human rights violations, international criminal law should also be considered as a relevant framework for prosecution and accountability. Given the link to the ongoing armed conflict in Libya, abuses committed against migrants in detention centres may qualify as war crimes and fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court."

The ICC Prosecutor's Office has been investigating the case since 2017, but to date has not produced an arrest warrant.

According to the NGO Alarm Phone, in October 2019, Malta accepted that a Libyan patrol entered its territorial waters to intercept a boat of fifty refugees in distress. The migrants were subsequently detained in the Tarik al Sika centre in Tripoli. The association then accused the Maltese authorities of violating human rights conventions by encouraging the return of refugees to a war zone. In June 2020, the NGO Sea-Watch revealed, with video evidence, that the Libyan coastguard had fired on a dinghy carrying a group of forty-five migrants in an attempt to make them turn back. The dinghy was 35 nautical miles (less than 30 km) from the Italian town of Lampedusa at the time and eventually managed to reach the coast.

In September 2020, Amnesty International published a report highlighting "Malta's violations of the rights of refugees and migrants in the central Mediterranean " . And in particular, since the end of May 2020 and the signing of an agreement between Tripoli and Valletta. "It is shameful that the EU and Italy have normalised their cooperation with Libya on border control, but sending people back to Libya at risk is anything but normal," said Elisa De Pieri, regional researcher at Amnesty International.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called on Libya at the end of October 2021 "to address without delay, in a humane and rights-based manner, the dire situation of asylum seekers and refugees". Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR's special envoy for the situation in the eastern and central Mediterranean, had insisted: "the Libyan authorities must present an appropriate plan that respects their rights and identifies durable solutions."

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