Law of the Sea Symposium: Search and Rescue Operations at Sea – Who is in Charge? Who is Responsible?[Dr Seline Trevisanut is a Marie Curie Fellow and Assistant Professor at the Netherlands Institute for the Law of the Sea (NILOS)] Cross-posted at SHARES Blog. On Sunday, 8 May 2011, the British newspaper The Guardian reported the story of a boat carrying 72 persons, among them asylum seekers, women and children, which left Tripoli (Libya) for the Italian island of Lampedusa at the end of March 2011 (for comments, see here and here). After 16 days at sea, the boat was washed up on the Libyan shore with only 11 survivors. During the 16 days route, survivors told that they used their satellite phone, which later ran out of battery, to call an Eritrean priest in Rome for help (see Resolution 1872 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe). The priest alerted the Italian Maritime Regional Coordination Centre, which located the migrants’ vessel and sent out many calls to the ships in the area. Pursuant to survivors’ testimonies, on about the tenth day of their voyage, when half of the passengers were dead, a large aircraft carrier or helicopter-carrying vessel (probably involved in the NATO’s Operation Unified Protector, which was on going at that time off the Libyan shores) sailed near to the boat, close enough for the survivors to see the sailors on board looking at them with binoculars and taking photos. But no one rescued them. Flag states and coastal states have a duty to render assistance to persons found at sea in the danger of being lost and people in distress (Article 98 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)). This core obligation under both treaty law (see also the 1974 Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS Convention), the 1979 Search and Rescue Convention (SAR Convention) and the 1989 International Convention on Salvage) and customary law applies in any maritime zone and in relation to any activity there performed. While implementing this duty states can either perform directly the search and rescue (SAR) operations, namely through their own SAR services, or ask a vessel, which is located in the proximity of the endangered persons, be it any merchant ship or the state vessel of another country, to perform the rescue operation. The texts here mentioned expressly refers to states, flag or coastal. Practice however offers more and more examples of police activities performed under the command of an international organization or a supranational body. A question then arises:
- who are the bearers of the obligation? Namely, are those ‘entities’ (such as NATO) bound by the duty to render assistance?
- Is the duty to render assistance a purely inter-state obligation or does it entail a right to be rescued for people in distress at sea?