On April 23, the ship Mare Liberum received an order of suspension issued by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transportation. The suspension order stated that Mare Liberum should be classified as a freightliner, or cargo boat, and therefore had no valid licenses to sail. Mare Liberum proved in court that the suspension was unlawful and is now back in the water. While suspended, at least six people drowned while attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece and there was at least one illegal push-back in the Aegean Sea. In this context, Europe must stop all attacks directed at preventing non-profit organizations from civil sea rescue and human rights monitoring. 

 

Mare Liberum is not a search and rescue vessel. The Berlin-based non-governmental organization (NGO) and leisure vessel Mare Liberum e.V. conducts human rights monitoring in the Aegean Sea to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis that is currently happening in the sea route between Turkey and Greece. The crew on the Mare Liberum ship observe and report to the wider public and pressure groups any action that might be considered as a breach in international law. In spite of this, the suspension order issued by the German authorities alleged that Mare Liberum is a rescue ship which should be classified in the same category as a commercial freightliner, even though the vessel’s main purpose is conducting human rights monitoring, not search and rescue operations. 

 

The background to this decision is a directive from the Ministry of Transport to the German Association of Traffic and Transportation, which imposed restrictions on civil rescue ships acting on the Mediterranean Sea. The directive stated not to treat civil search and rescue vessels generally as motor yachts or sport boats disregarding the actual registration. Pursuing such directive, the suspension order required our 21 meter ship to fulfil safety requirements for freighters, despite the fact that Mare Liberum has been registered for many years and had always fulfilled all the necessary requirements. The classification of Mare Liberum as a commercial vessel, as stated in the order, imposes equipment requirements. What exactly that means is unclear. Finally, the Administrative Court ruled: “After an examination of the factual and legal situation, the suspension of the respondent should prove to be illegal”.

 

This suspension order was a clear attempt to prevent any civil presence in Aegean Sea to document human rights violations and the deadly consequences of the European Union’s deal with Turkey to control and prevent migration flows to the continent. The presence of monitoring vessels such as Mare Liberum, act as a deterrent to the authorities, as any violation of human rights law, refugee law or the law of the sea would be immediately reported to national and international entities. 

 

Recently, the Federal Government of Germany replied to a question from parliament stating it would “oppose general criminalisation and the obstruction of the activities of private sea rescue workers”. However, Mare Liberum’s suspension order was issued by Germany’s Ministry of Transport, led by the right-wing Christian Social Union (CSU) politician Andreas Scheuer. This is clear evidence on how the case of Mare Liberum’s suspension order was explicitly influenced by political will. 

Human lives are not a secondary concern

“The number of refugees and migrants making the Mediterranean Sea crossing fell in 2018 but it is likely that reductions to search and rescue capacity coupled with an uncoordinated and unpredictable response to disembarkation led to an increased death rate as people continued to flee their countries due to conflict, human rights violations, persecution, and poverty. […] On the crossing from Libya to Europe, for instance, the rate went from one death for every 38 arrivals in 2017 to one for every 14 arrivals last year. ” (UNHCR).  

According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (the SAR Convention), coastal states bare the primary responsibility in providing search and rescue assistance as well as to answer to any distress situation in the sea. Furthermore, UNCLOS includes an article which states that “every coastal State shall promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate and effective search and rescue service regarding safety on and over the sea and, where circumstances so require, by way of mutual regional arrangements cooperate with neighboring States for this purpose”

However, as Spain announced cuts on its national sea rescue operations and the European Union (EU) announced they are putting an end to sea patrols in the Mediterranean, it becomes clear that search and rescue obligations have become secondary – if not neglected – by its primary duty-bearers. 

Only this year, 34 people have died in the Aegean, while attempting to cross to Europe. In the Mediterranean overall, 512 deaths have been recorded. Without non-governmental and civil organizations at sea, a far bigger amount of people would have lost their lives. Moreover, the violations of human rights at the deadliest migration route in the world would have gone unnoticed.

By blocking civil vessels such as Mare Liberum, EU member states would not be preventing people from crossing the sea, but would be causing a huge information blackout. Currently, as governments try to prevent non-governmental ships from sailing, we are at risk of a huge inability to access information and accurate reporting on the actual number of deaths and crossing attempts. As states try to cover-up the huge humanitarian tragedy in the Mediterranean, civil-organizations play a key role in keeping them accountable. 

In this context, Mare Liberum’s presence in the Aegean is more pressing than ever. The ship bears now the responsibility of keeping the authorities in the area accountable and ensuring that they uphold their responsibilities under international law. As long as European governments and agencies do not fulfil their obligations and keep carrying out illegal push-backs  civil rescue and human rights monitoring activities must be widely supported. 

Stop sabotaging civil rescue and human rights monitoring

In response to the constant criminalization and efforts to stop any civil operations in both the Aegean and the Mediterranean, EU countries must commit to continue funding and supporting state-led rescue operations, as well as ensuring a strong search and rescue response. This response must ensure the protection of all civil organizations pursuing search and rescue activities and human rights monitoring. 

The death of thousands of people in the Aegean and wider Mediterranean is a problem that cannot be overlooked any longer and demands a solution from all member states. As primary duty-bearers, coastal states and EU member states must take responsibility and work together with civil organizations to prevent a further tragedy. Country-led rescue operations cannot take a secondary role in the current humanitarian crisis context in the sea, and this cannot happen while civil efforts are being shut down. 

This challenging context shows the need for a civil accountability system and the importance of the civil society actors that carry out search and rescue operations and human rights monitoring. Given the relevance of its duty, the Mare Liberum and its crew will continue with its monitoring mission in the Aegean Sea as a civil counter corrective measure to current European border politics.