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Gibraltar’s decision to strip flag from Aquarius rescue ship undermines ancient seafaring principle of solidarity

The Aquarius rescue ship flying the Gibraltar flag enters the harbour in Valletta, Malta in August. Domenic Aquilina/EPA

Gibraltar’s decision in late August to terminate permission for the Aquarius to operate as a rescue vessel in the Mediterranean is just the latest example of governments politicising and undermining search and rescue at sea. The fatal consequences of such moves are becoming alarmingly evident, with the UNHCR reporting that the death rate in the Mediterranean has soared, particularly on the Central Mediterranean route where the Aquarius has been conducting rescue operations under the Gibraltar flag.

SOS Méditerranée, which runs the Aquarius, has now applied for registration under the flag of Panama. Both Panama and Gibraltar are known as “flag states”, and are responsible for ensuring that the vessels on their registry comply with international rules and standards.

The Gibraltar government stated that the decision to strip the Aquarius of her flag was taken independently by the Maritime Administrator on the basis of a “proper interpretation of all the applicable rules” and that it “was a totally non-political decision”. But my conversations suggest otherwise.

The decision appeared to follow the Italian government’s demand that the UK accept the 141 people rescued by the Aquarius on August 10, because the ship was operating under the Gibraltar flag. Gibraltar is an overseas territory of the UK, a status contested by Spain.

The Italian government’s claim that the UK, as the “flag state”, should accept the people rescued by the Aquarius is not without precedent. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher reluctantly accepted people rescued by ships flying the UK flag during the Indochina Refugee Crisis.

When I asked the Maritime Administrator to explain its “interpretation” of “all the applicable rules”, I was referred to the Gibraltar government. This was despite the fact that in its press release, the government described the decision as an “administrative process … in which the government has or has had no involvement”. When asked to clarify, the government said the Aquarius’s permission to operate under the Gibraltar flag had been terminated and advised that it had no further comment.

The harbour at Gibraltar. Petr Pavlica/Shutterstock

Without any further explanation, it’s difficult to imagine how any interpretation of all the applicable rules could lead to the decision to terminate the Aquarius’s permission to conduct rescue operations.

An expert with years of experience negotiating and interpreting the “applicable rules”, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that the decision seems absurd. They said interfering with rescue at sea for political reasons ashore is a disgrace.

Help for those in distress

In fact, the rules are quite simple. The overriding legal obligation placed on all – including coastal and flag states, and vessels of all kinds – is the duty to provide assistance to those in distress at sea. There is nothing in the suite of international conventions that provide the framework for the international law of the sea that appears to justify Gibraltar’s decision. What other rules the Gibraltar government might be referring to remain a mystery.

But the move comes as states such as Italy and Malta at the EU’s Mediterranean border are increasingly closing their ports to vessels that have rescued people at sea, until other member states agree to receive and process asylum requests from the people onboard.

This is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970s, coastal states such as Hong Kong (then under British colonial control) refused entry to commercial ships that rescued people escaping Vietnam in the aftermath of the failed US intervention. More recently, in 2001, Australia refused entry to a commercial ship after directing her captain to rescue 433 people in the international waters around Christmas Island, even sending an SAS team to prevent her from entering Australian territorial waters.

Read more: NGOs under attack for saving too many lives in the Mediterranean

Solidarity at stake

Today, NGOs are essential to the provision of search and rescue in the central Mediterranean, because of the tragically inadequate search and rescue provision from EU member states and agencies. While these NGOs initially managed to forge a cooperative, if sometimes uneasy, relationship with coastal states’ search and rescue authorities, recent developments have seen their operations being increasingly undermined by national, and nationalist, politics. This comes at a time of increasing intolerance of those who express solidarity for refugees in Europe.

Gibraltar’s decision shows how the integrity of the ancient seafaring principle of solidarity (first codified in the 1910 Brussels Convention on Salvage, and reflected in all conventions on safety and rescue at sea since) “to render assistance to everybody, even though an enemy, found at sea in danger of being lost”, is being severely undermined by European policies on migration and asylum. Such moves expose how the EU, and Europe’s, commitment to international law, rescue and refuge are being sidelined in the context of a politics that increasingly defines “the migrant” or “asylum-seeker” as an enemy not worthy of rescue.

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