Italian navy ship Libra off the coast of Lampedusa | Photo: ANSA/Guiseppe Lami
Italian navy ship Libra off the coast of Lampedusa | Photo: ANSA/Guiseppe Lami

Italy failed to protect the right to life of over 200 migrants, including 60 children, who were aboard a boat that sank in the Mediterranean in 2013, according to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee (OHCHR), in a decision published Wednesday, said that Italy had "failed to respond promptly to various distress calls" from a boat that sank in the Mediterranean in October 2013. Over 200 migrants died in the shipwreck, including 60 children.

"Italy failed in its international obligations to protect the right to life," the Human Rights Committee said.

In a news release, the UN said that Italy had also failed to explain the delay in dispatching its naval vessel, ITS Libra, which was located only about an hour away from the scene of the shipwreck.

'Complex' case between Italy and Malta

Hélène Tigroudja, a member of the Human Rights Committee, said the case was a "complex" one.

"The accident happened in international waters within the Maltese search-and-rescue zone, but the location was indeed closest to Italy and to one of its naval ships. Had the Italian authorities immediately directed its naval ship and coast guard boats after the distress calls, the rescue would have reached the vessel, at the latest, two hours before it sank," Tigroudja said.

Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, state authorities are required to try to protect the lives of people who are at distress at sea -- regardless of whether they are in the state's rescue zone or not, the OHCHR member explained.

The Committee had looked into the shipwreck because three Syrians and a Palestinian national had launched a joint complaint. The four individuals were survivors of the shipwreck who had lost family members when the boat sank.

Many Syrians among casualties

The boat had departed from the Libyan port of Zuwarah with more than 400 adults and children aboard. Many people aboard the vessel were fleeing from Syria.

The fishing boat started taking on water a few hours after its departure and was also hit by a boat flying a Berber flag in international waters, 113 kilometers south of the Italian island of Lampedusa and 218 kilometers south of Malta, according to the OHCHR.

A UN investigation found that a person aboard the vessel had repeatedly called the Italian number for emergencies at sea, but no one was dispatched to their rescue -- Italian authorities only told them that their calls had been forwarded to Maltase authorities.

The migrants then made several calls to the Malta Rescue Coordination Center. By the time a Maltese patrol boat arrived at the scene, the boat had already capsized.

After an urgent request by Malta, Italy finally instructed its navy ship ITS Libra, which was in the boat's vicinity, to come to the rescue -- many hours after the first distress call.

Italy's delayed action caused deaths

"As a result of the delayed action, more than 200 people, including 60 children, drowned," OHCHR found.

OHCHR said that "some surviving migrants sought justice in Italian courts, and took their case to the Human Rights Committee as Italy failed to take appropriate measures to save their relatives, thus violating their right to life."

Surviving migrants also reportedly asked the OHCHR to investigate Maltese authorities, but the committee did not look into those complaints. That was because "the plaintiffs did not bring legal proceedings before courts in Malta, one of the requirements prior to filing their case with the Human Rights Committee," the UN committee said.


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