UPDATE: On April 24, 2012, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly called on NATO to “conduct an inquiry into the incident and provide comprehensive answers to outstanding questions.”
(Milan) - NATO and its member countries should conduct a full investigation into allegations of failure to rescue a disabled boat filled with migrants fleeing Libya, Human Rights Watch said today. The boat, carrying seventy-two people including two babies, apparently drifted for two weeks in the Mediterranean before landing back in Libya on April 10, 2011, despite distress calls and sightings by a military helicopter and what appeared to be an aircraft carrier. Only nine people survived, one of them told Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch interviewed both the survivor and a priest based in Rome who was briefly in contact with the passengers by telephone.
"What could NATO have done to prevent these people from dying?" said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. "We need an investigation to determine if, and how, this terrible tragedy could have been averted."
Failure to rescue people on a boat in distress when it is reasonable for a ship to do so is a serious breach of international law, Human Rights Watch said. The president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called on May 9 for an "immediate and comprehensive" investigation.
NATO has denied the charge that it ignored migrants in distress at sea, saying it was unaware of the boat's plight. A NATO spokesman in Brussels told Human Rights Watch that NATO had looked into the matter with due diligence and found no records of any contact with the boat, adding that no further investigations are envisioned. But reviewing the paper trail should only be the first step in a more in-depth inquiry, including interviews with relevant personnel on ships in the area at the time and at NATO command in Naples, Human Rights Watch said.
The African governments whose citizens were in the drifting boat - Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria, and Sudan - and the African Union should press NATO and European governments to conduct an immediate and comprehensive investigation into the matter, Human Rights Watch said.
The survivor interviewed by Human Rights Watch, an Ethiopian man named Abu, said the 11-meter boat left Libya on March 25 with 72 people aboard. After about 19 hours at sea, with fuel running low, he said, the passengers called an Eritrean priest in Rome, Father Moses Zerai, for help.
Interviewed separately, Zerai, who runs a refugee rights organization called Agenzia Habeshia, confirmed that he received a phone call from the distressed passengers on the boat. He told Human Rights Watch that he immediately alerted both the Italian coast guard and NATO command in Naples. The Italian coast guard confirmed to The Guardian newspaper that it had sent out an alert to all vessels in the area. The NATO spokesman said that NATO was unaware of any calls made to the NATO command in Naples.
Abu told Human Rights Watch by phone from Tripoli that at some point after the phone call to Zerai, a helicopter with the word "Army" in English written on it hovered above the boat and dropped water and biscuits. He said the boat's captain, a Ghanaian, decided to remain in the area, believing the helicopter would send a rescue team, and used up the rest of the boat's fuel. Abu said the passengers also saw an aircraft carrier and tried to communicate that they were in distress, holding up the two babies and waving their arms. Two jets took off from the aircraft carrier and flew over the boat, Abu said, but no help arrived.
The Guardian newspaper alleged on May 8 that the aircraft carrier was probably the French ship Charles de Gaulle. French naval authorities first denied that the carrier was in the region at the time and then declined to comment further to the newspaper. A NATO spokesman is quoted in The Guardian as saying that NATO had no records of the incident, and that "NATO ships will answer all distress calls at sea and always provide help when necessary. Saving lives is a priority for any NATO ships." It is unclear whether other NATO member countries had navy ships in the area not operating under NATO command.
NATO issued a statement indicating that the only aircraft carrier under NATO command in the area on the dates in question was the Italian Garibaldi, and that it was operating over 100 nautical miles out at sea. "Any claims that a NATO aircraft carrier spotted and then ignored the vessel in distress are wrong," NATO said. The Brussels spokesman told Human Rights Watch that NATO ships came to the assistance of two boats in distress on the night of March 26 and 27, providing food and water and alerting the Italian coast guard, which subsequently rescued the boats.
The boat drifted for two weeks before the currents took it back to Libya, Abu told Human Rights Watch. Sixty-one people, including all twenty women and two children aboard, died at sea, he said. One man died shortly after reaching Libya.
Libyan authorities detained the remaining 10 survivors for several days, and one more man died while in custody, the survivor told Human Rights Watch and The Guardian. The nine survivors are still in Tripoli, hoping to reach Tunisia with the assistance of a local Catholic church.
In early April, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, called on all vessels in the Mediterranean to consider all overcrowded boats leaving Libya to be in distress. The rear admiral in command of NATO maritime operations in the Mediterranean issued a specific, classified order in early April calling for heightened vigilance and efforts to rescue migrants trying to flee Libya by sea, the NATO spokesman told Human Rights Watch. NATO instructions are to provide immediate assistance - medical, food, and water - to a boat in distress, alert the competent coast guard, and wait to make sure the rescue operation is initiated, the spokesman said.
Hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans have died fleeing Libya by sea since the end of March. A boat carrying over 600 people sank off the Libyan coast on May 7, with the death toll still unclear. On April 6, over 200 people, including children, died when their boat sank in Maltese waters.
As many as 800 more people who have left Libya by boat over the past six to eight weeks are unaccounted for and presumed dead.
"With a mounting death toll, all vessels in the Mediterranean, including NATO forces and those of member countries, shouldn't wait until a boat is sinking to intervene," Sunderland said. "As more and more people attempt the crossing in overcrowded, unsafe boats, all vessels in the area should assume overcrowded migrant boats are in distress, come immediately to their rescue, and take their passengers to safety."
Since late March, when the first wave of people began to flee Libya by sea, more than 10,000 have reached Italy and over 1,000 have reached Malta. The vast majority are sub-Saharan Africans. Thousands of migrants remain trapped in Libya, unable to flee by land to neighboring countries.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) began evacuating migrants from Misrata, Libya by boat to the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, which is under rebel control, on April 14. Libyan government forces have repeatedly shelled Mistrata's port and reportedly placed sea mines at the entrance to the harbor.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that a heavy attack on the port on May 4 impeded the efforts of the IOM ferry to unload humanitarian supplies and evacuate stranded migrants. One Grad rocket killed four Nigerians and wounded more than a dozen others at about noon. Those killed were a brother and sister - Debkin Eze, age one-and-a-half, and Suzis Eze, 8 months old - and two adult siblings, Emragy Ogem, 30, and Marian Ogem, 35. The mother of Debkin and Suzis Eze, Favour Ayena, 30, who is three months pregnant, had shrapnel wounds in her shoulder and arm and wounds to her right leg that required amputation below the knee.
Late on May 5, pro-Gaddafi forces scattered antivehicle mines in Misrata's port area, distributed by a Grad rocket, witnesses said, confirmed by inspection of the rocket and mine remains. Human Rights Watch confirmed that the mines were a Chinese type-84 scatterable antivehicle mine. Two port guards were wounded when their truck ran over one of them. One of the guards, Faisal El Mahrougi, 32, suffered a broken foot, cuts to the abdomen and chest, third degree burns to his leg and arm, and extensive soft tissue damage to his leg and arm.
Sub-Saharan migrants also came under attack from angry mobs in the rebel-held east in late February and early March, Human Rights Watch said, forcing thousands to flee to Egypt. After opposition forces expelled government security forces from Benghazi and other eastern towns in mid-February, Libyans attacked the foreigners in their housing compounds outside the cities, in their city apartments and in the streets, and robbed them at checkpoints as they were fleeing to the Egyptian border.
The European Union (EU) also needs to do more to prevent deaths at sea, Human Rights Watch said. In early April, EU foreign ministers agreed to set up an EU military force for Libya (Eufor Libya) for humanitarian action, including evacuations by sea. No operations have been conducted, however.
"There's been an awful lot of hand-wringing about a potential massive influx of refugees from Libya, with Italy and Malta bearing the brunt of rescue missions and reception of those fleeing Libya by sea, but more has to be done to help people reach safety without risking their lives," Sunderland said. "To help prevent further deaths at sea, the EU as a whole should show concrete solidarity and begin evacuating to Europe migrants who are trapped by the violence."