Search and Rescue at sea: Who is the “most able to assist”?

| Marie BOUCHER, student in Master 2 International and European Law at the Faculty of Law, Economics, and Management, University of Angers

The Mediterranean is the deadliest route in the world. The graph below provides irrefutable evidence, and numbers speak for themselves.

We know all this. However, one aspect is less well known: the risks to shipwrecked people’s safety by a supposed rescuing ship. Indeed, sometimes, it might happen that a rescuing boat threatens the shipwrecked and then, it is no longer the crossing of the sea itself that is dangerous for them, but rather the very vessel supposed to rescue them.

Infringements of fundamental rights by SAR units

It is an established fact which is even more shocking when you know that such vessels are Search and Rescue (SAR) units whose primary mission is to rescue people at sea.

What is maritime SAR?

Article 98 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) requires that “Every coastal State shall promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate and effective search and rescue service”. This is a general obligation from which States have drawn inspiration to establish areas where they organize Search and Rescue operations. These areas are SAR regions (SRRs) where services are coordinated by one or more Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (RCCs). It serves to define who has the responsibility to coordinate an operation to rescue people at sea. Each SAR State is responsible of its SRR and it is up to each of them to establish regulations concerning this region.

Two main Conventions frame SAR activities: The International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (27th April 1979, Hamburg); and The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (1st November 1974, London).

That kind of situation raises one main interrogation: Who is the most able to rescue people at sea?

This question might seem incongruous as we might assume that a ship specialized in SAR activities could be expected to automatically protect the shipwrecked. We could also argue that the essential thing is that any ship comes to rescue them, no matter what kind of ship. Wrong! Of course, it is essential that the shipwrecked lives be saved. But we must bear in mind too that even a rescuing ship may be dangerous for them.

By having established “Search and Rescue Regions” (SRR), we automatically deduce that a State has the adequate services concerning SAR activities, has an obligation of due diligence and will respect the Human Rights of shipwrecked people. Unfortunately, it is not always the case.

Indeed, certain SAR ships do not respect the principle of prompt disembarkation in a place of safety (as required by the ) and this might be illustrated by several examples.

The most significant one would be the: Libyan SAR ships disregard the principle of prompt disembarkation in a place of safety by picking up the shipwrecked migrants and by disembarking them time and again in. The latter is not considered as a place of safety according to International Law, since it does not ensure that the safety of the survivors is no longer threatened and where their basic human needs are guaranteed. These criminal practices have no longer to be proven. Knowing what happened in Libya and knowing what is the position of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) about this situation, this State can definitely not be considered a place of safety where people can be disembarked after being rescued. But that’s exactly what’s still going on with Libyan coastguards. Thus, in comparison with another ship from a SAR State, Libyan vessels cannot be considered “most able to assist”.

The involvement of European States

It is outrageous to know that European States are collaborating with Libya: there is ample evidence that certain EU Member States agreed with Libya to return shipwrecked migrants to its territory, for fear of seeing too many migrants landing on EU territory.

It is even more appalling to realize that sometimes European States directly send back migrants to Libya themselves. This may be backed up by the facts of the Hirsi Jamaa case in which migrants were intercepted by Italian Revenue Police ships in the Maltese SRR and were returned by themselves to Tripoli. Here again, it is a breach of the prompt disembarkation in a place of safety principle and given this situation, even Italy cannot be considered “most able to assist”.

Thus, it is established that certain ships – and certain States – would be “not able to assist” regarding principles and provisions of International Law. As a matter of fact, it seems that there is no established legal definition of the “most able to assist” notion concerning Maritime SAR activities. Which raises a significant issue: on what basis consider a ship or a State “most able to assist”? According to what criteria?

A body of evidence to identify the “most able to assist” at sea?

Despite the lack of an established legal definition – which would be useful especially in terms of security – it is possible to find some criteria in certain international conventions.

The SAR Convention is the most appropriate one: it states that facilities and equipment must be provided by each rescue unit and that these units should have means to communicate and to receive communications.

Thus, considering the “most able to assist” notion we can identify characteristics which may be led to a global definition.

Regarding the provisions of the SAR Convention, it seems that the quality of the equipment of both a boat participating in a rescue operation and a Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) is essential. We understand why when we are aware of the operations involved. Those structures need special equipment like first-aid equipment, special facilities to transfer and welcome the shipwrecked aboard, food, water, lifeboats, etc. In addition to the equipment, the training of the crew is also important, especially concerning the behavior to adopt when people are transferred aboard the rescuing boat or first aid procedures for instance.

Another essential aspect is the ability to communicate in the sense that if a civil ship witnesses a shipwreck and does not have the ability to rescue its crew or considers being unable to do so, it must communicate with the SAR units on this matter.

But beyond appropriate equipment, training, and the ability to communicate, there is a fourth element that needs to be added: the willingness to respect the fundamental rights of the shipwrecked people.

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
lighthouseua (13 avril 2020). Search and Rescue at sea: Who is the “most able to assist”? The Lighthouse. Consulté le 15 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

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