Sea-Watch Captain Freed: A Victory for Humanitarian Rescue at Sea

Captain Carola Rackete landing in Italy
Captain Carola Rackete landing in Italy

Published Jul 8, 2019 5:51 PM by David Hammond

Captain Carola Rackete has now been freed, but the European political controversy continues.

The judicial decision delivered a much needed victory for both common-sense and humanitarian acts of rescue at sea, thereby setting a precedent to be reflected on for all vessel Captains and policy makers alike.

Judge Alessandra Vella made a decision that reflected no case to answer, as the charges raised by Italian prosecutors against the Sea-Watch Captain were non-applicable in this case.

Sea-Watch, nonetheless, still anticipates further investigations based on a prosecutorial suspicion of facilitation of illegal migration. Meanwhile, the Sea-Watch 3 vessel remains detained by Italian authorities.


The charges submitted against Rackete focused on allegations that she had rammed a military vessel. The Italian vessel was allegedly preventing the Sea-Watch 3 from entering Lampedusa’s port. As it has been now ruled, Rackete acted entirely lawfully by acting under her professional obligations as the Captain of the Sea-Watch 3, fulfilling her duty to save life at sea.

Rackete was “doing her duty saving human lives” ruled Vella.

While many expected Italy’s new Directives aimed at fining migrant rescuers to create further obstacles for NGO rescue operations, it is yet to be proven that the Sea-Watch Captain and her crew are “human traffickers” as per the Italian Directives. This is therefore a distracting political show that has been created to fail as, as one familiar with the applicable law would know that one of the criteria of such an allegation, is that to be a trafficker, the accused would have been making profit out of such activity. This is clearly not the case.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, and leader of far-right Lega party remains resolute in his migration position, though Sibeth Ndiaye, the French Government’s spokeswoman, has heavy criticized the Italian Government saying: “I think that, basically, the Italian Government has not been up to the task” and stating that “Mr Matteo Salvini’s behavior has not been acceptable as far as I am concerned.”

Let us be reminded that Sea-Watch, as well as other humanitarian NGOs, are operating under strict compliance with well-established humanitarian principles. The Italian Interior Minister appears to be intentionally spreading misinforming the general public through misinterpretation of maritime law, levying unnecessary fines, and further calling Rackete an outlaw and a people smuggler.

U.N. human rights experts condemned the bill aimed at fining migrant rescuers, raising global indignation towards the existence of such decree in the first place.

Furthermore, the U.N. press release notes as follows: “The Directives stigmatize migrants as 'possible terrorists, traffickers and smugglers' without providing evidence, the experts said. 'We are concerned that this type of rhetoric will further increase the climate of hatred and xenophobia, as previously highlighted in another letter to which the Italian Government is also yet to reply.'”

International Support

During the two nights during which Rackete was under house arrest, international support grew from international stakeholders, governments and civil society organizations.

Meantime, U.N. spokesperson for the Secretary-General Antonio Guterress, Stéphane Dujarric, warned Italy against the criminalization of sea rescue: “No vessel or ship master should be at risk of being fined for coming to the aid of boats in distress, where loss of life is imminent.” Germany’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Heiko Maas, further firmly criticized Italy for arresting Rackete, stating that sea rescue should never be criminalized.

Libyan Detention Centers

Libya is not a port of safety for persons rescued in the Central Mediterranean Sea despite assurances that it is, and therefore Rackete’s decision to enter the port of Lampedusa was a justified and necessary one based on well-documented facts and evidence concerning gross human rights abuses in Libya, including the latest news that migrants were made to work in weapons factories and were shot at when they tired to flee.

Soon after the release of Rackete from house arrest this week, a migrant detention center was hit by an airstrike in Tajoura, in the eastern suburbs of Tripoli on Wednesday morning, July 3. The center was housing over 610 people with a reported 53 dead and over 130 severely injured. U.N. Secretary General, António Guterres, called for an independent investigation, and the U.N. labeled it as “a war crime and odious bloody carnage.” Amnesty has called for an ICC investigation into war crimes, and UNHCR has publicly requested to halt all efforts to send migrants rescued at sea back to Libya.

Under International Humanitarian Law it is well established that civilians should never be a targeted, yet it is still shameful to see that the E.U.’s collective efforts and migration policies are concentrated on keeping migrants from attempting the Mediterranean crossing from Libya, where they are subject to arbitrary detention and the worse forms of human rights violations.

Weakening of the Search And Rescue System

The E.U. approach to the coordination of disembarkation has failed to show its efficiency and effectiveness to a known issue. It is also worth noting that it is in this context, that NGO search-and-rescue operations have also been systematically criminalized since 2015.

In the latest case, it was well over two weeks of waiting for an E.U. solution, despite assurance from several countries that the Sea-Watch migrants would be taken by other E.U. States, that Rackete decided to enter the port of Lampedusa.

Ruben Neugebauer, Sea-Watch’s spokesperson, state during a press conference last Tuesday that one of the potential major consequences of this failure to coordinate efforts and the risk of criminalization might put Captains of commercial vessels operating in the Central Mediterranean Sea in a difficult position where they will think twice before rescuing a person found in distress. Sea rescue is however a duty, and those who find themselves in such position need the full support and cooperation of all applicable authorities.

What’s Next

Soon Rackete is to return in front of a prosecutor in Sicily where she is expected to be charged with facilitation of  illegal migration, a conviction for which she risks up to 15 years in prison.

The likelihood of prosecutorial success after the first ruling is now in question, and any evidence being proffered for new charges will come under close judicial, political and civil society scrutiny, as any outcome and potential trial will also shape the course of European policy and politics related to the migrant issue.

David Hammond is Founder of Human Rights at Sea.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.