The European Commission defended its track record of saving lives in the Mediterranean on Monday (3 June), as it faced accusations of ““crimes against humanity” substantiated in a 245-page report by international lawyers, brought before the International Criminal Court.
The report, authored by a group of international lawyers, cites public European Union documents, statements from the French president, the German chancellor and other top European Union officials. It demands that EU member states which played a prominent role in the refugee crisis, namely Italy, Germany and France, be prosecuted for the deaths of thousands of migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean fleeing Libya.
The indictment also blames European migration policy for the widespread rape and torture of migrants at the hands of a Libyan coast guard that is funded and trained at the expense of European taxpayers.
One of the crimes, according to the document, was the decision to end the Mare Nostrum rescue operation near the end of 2014. In one year, the operation launched by the Italian government rescued 150,810 migrants in the Mediterranean.
More than 12,000 people have died since 2014 trying flee Libya to Europe by what the UN refugee agency calls the “world’s deadliest sea crossing”.
Commission spokesperson Natasha Bertaud said that the EU executive would not comment legal proceedings that have not yet started.
“More generally, the EU track record for saving lives in the Mediterranean speaks for itself. Saving lives has been our top priority”, she said.
Bertaud recalled that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in 2015 that ending the Italian operation Mare Nostrum was a mistake. She added that the Commission sought to correct this by immediately tripling the EU’s rescue capacity in the Mediterranean, in 2015.
Since then, she said, four EU operations in the Mediterranean have helped rescue nearly 730,000 people, with the number of deaths declining significantly, compared to previous years.
“It is not the EU’s policies that is causing these tragedies, it’s the cruel and dangerous business model used by traffickers and smugglers exploiting human misery and putting peoples’ lives at risk”, she said.
The Commission spokesperson added that training provided by the EU to the Libyan coastguards on countering the trafficking of human beings, in respect of human rights, was part of the same effort. In addition, she said the EU was making efforts to improve the dire situation of migrants in Libya.
The bottom line is however that EU member states and Italy in particular, under its present government in which Lega’s chief Matteo Salvini is the minister of Interior, have made impossible the work of NGOs in the Mediterranean, and these operations have not been properly replaced.
It is also true that EU countries have not shown enough solidarity with Italy, a country particularly exposed to the arrival of migrants rescued at sea.
Lawyer Juan Branco, a former ICC jurist, and Omer Shatz, an international law lecturer at Sciences Po university in Paris, helped prepare the 245-page accusations.
The EU has crafted a very elaborate strategy to hide its own responsibilities,” Branco said at a press conference in Paris later Monday, saying he and his colleagues had spent two years preparing the claim.
France’s foreign ministry rejected the accusation, saying it “makes no sense and has no legal basis.”
“France has strongly engaged in the fight against human trafficking and smugglers,” it said in a statement, quoted by AFP.
Set up in 2002 to try the world’s worst crimes, the ICC prosecutes individuals only and receives hundreds of requests for investigation every year.