UN: ‘Member States should fulfill their obligations to save lives and stop criminalizing humanitarian aid actors’

The United Nations published a report by Agnes Callamard, the Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. The report, entitled “Saving lives is not a crime”, describes that the States’ actions to fight terrorism and deter migration, and the subsequent criminalization of humanitarian services, constitute a violation of their obligations. The report urges States to cease the criminalisation of those trying to assist and/or save migrants and refugees.

The report outlines how humanitarian action has existed for over a hundred years all over the globe and how the society has been shaped by the concepts of charity, solidarity and the protection of “the stranger”. However, nowadays governments “are exacerbating, not reducing, the dangers faced by those on the move.” Failing to offer humanitarian services through policies, obstructing life-saving services and criminalizing acts of solidarity “constitute violations of the State’s obligation to protect the right to life. Any deaths attributable to such measures amount to the arbitrary deprivation of life, which engages the responsibility of the State”.

In many cases, people who have tried to offer help to migrants face prosecution, like, for instance, a man who tried to drive a family of refugees and a pregnant woman from Italy to France. Humanitarian NGOs carrying out search and rescue operations have been accused too; for instance, Italian prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro had said that the NGO’s intervention to save lives “renders investigations into facilitators of criminal organisations useless.” Moreover, In 2016, Médecins Sans Frontières and other Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) were accused by the Libyan coastguard of being a “pull factor” for migrants and refugees to attempt sea crossings.

The Special Rapporteur further describes that “by obstructing the provision of life-saving services and criminalizing acts of solidarity, States are violating normative pillars of international human rights and humanitarian law. What follows are arbitrary deprivations of life under the convenient banners of fighting terrorism, combating smuggling or guarding social mores.”In the report, Callamard “calls upon States to end all forms of criminalization, harassment and stigmatization of individuals and organizations providing life-saving services.”

The States, as the report reads, “are increasingly relying on the three pillars of militarization, extraterritorial border control and deterrence to shield their countries from irregular migration.”The report brings back to attention the resolution 71/198 and highlights that deterring the services of humanitarian actors by criminalizing them or by adopting policies that impedes their actions, “States violate their obligation to prevent, combat and eliminate arbitrary killings and the deprivation of life” . The report also recalls the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (2000) and its requirement that States have to “take all appropriate measures to preserve and protect the rights of migrants, including, in particular, the right to life. It obliges States parties to provide basic assistance to migrants and illegal residents in cases where their lives or safety have been endangered by reason of an offence established in accordance with the Protocol.” Furthermore, as the protocol reads, if a State is unwilling or unable to provide humanitarian relief, they should let others provide such services; “For this reason, States must not criminalize or otherwise penalize the provision of support or assistance to migrants”. As for the States attempting to prevent rescues on the basis of one’s immigration status, race, ethnicity or religion, they“are violating international human rights law (and maritime law for sea rescues).”