CCPR: Failure of Italian authorities to respond promptly to distress calls from sinking vessel

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

On 27 January 2021, the Human Rights Committee published its views concerning the communication CCPR/C/130/D/3042/2017 submitted by A.S, D.I O.I and G.D on their own behalf and on behalf of 13 of their relatives who were on board a vessel that shipwrecked in the Mediterranean Sea in October 2013, causing the estimated death of more than 200 people.
The vessel, reportedly carrying over 400 people, began sinking and the Italian service for emergencies at sea was contacted. Several hours later, Italian authorities told the vessel that it was in the Maltese search and rescue zone and provided them with a phone number of Malta’s Rescue Coordination Centre. By the time a Maltese patrol boat arrived, the vessel had already capsized, and an Italian naval ship, the ITS Libra, was dispatched only after an urgent request from Malta.
In relation to the admissibility of the communication, the Committee considered that in the particular circumstances of the case, ‘a special relationship of dependency’ had been established between the individuals on the vessel in distress and Italy. It stated that this relationship comprised of factual elements, in particular the initial contact made by the vessel in distress, the close proximity of ITS Libra to the vessel in distress and the ongoing involvement of the Italian authorities in the rescue operation, as well as legal obligations arising from international law of the sea, including a duty to respond in a reasonable manner to calls of distress and appropriately cooperate with other States undertaking rescue operations. The Committee therefore considered that the individuals on the vessel in distress were directly affected by the decisions of the Italian authorities in a foreseeable manner and as such, they were subject to Italy’s jurisdiction for the purposes of the Covenant. Consequently, the Committee found that it was not precluded by article 1 of the Optional Protocol from considering the communication.  
The Committee considered that despite the responsibility of the rescue operation lying with Malta, the Italian authorities had not provided a clear explanation for the failure to respond to the distress call prior to Maltese authorities’ assumption of responsibility for the search and rescue operation. Moreover, it considered that Italy failed to explain the delay in dispatching the ITS Libra and had further failed to explain clearly or refute the claim that the ITS Libra was ordered to sail away from the vessel in distress. In light of the facts, the Committee found that Italy failed to show that it had met its due diligence obligations under article 6(1) CCPR, thereby violating the provision.
The Committee also considered that Italy had not provided a clear explanation for the long duration of the ongoing domestic proceedings, nor had it indicated an anticipated timeframe for their completion. In that regard, it considered that Italy had failed to show that it had satisfied the duty to conduct a prompt investigation of the allegations relating to a violation of the right to life, therefore violating its obligations under article 6(1) read in conjunction with article 2(3) CCPR.
The Committee recalled that under article 2(3)(a) CCPR, Italy is obligated to proceed with an effective remedy and as such, Italy must, inter alia, proceed with an independent and effective investigation in a prompt manner and, if found necessary, prosecute and try those who are responsible for the death and disappearance of the authors’ relatives. It emphasised that Italy is also under an obligation to take all steps necessary to prevent similar violations from occurring in the future.

Photo: GPA Photo Archive, September 2010, Flickr (CC)

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Effective remedy (right to)
Humanitarian considerations
Inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment