Reported attack on the Bourbon Argos by Libyan navy: Can SAR NGOs rely on NATO and EU protection?

A few weeks ago, MSF search and rescue (SAR) ship, the Bourbon Argos, has been targeted by the Libyan navy. The reasons of the incident seem unclear, but justified by the Libyans as a mistake given that they thought that the ship was smuggling oil.

With the current migration crisis, SAR vessels are operating in international waters. Given the recent incident, the security of such operations can be questioned. This leads to asking if NATO and EU ships are capable of offering sufficient protection for NGOs operating in International Waters outside the 12 NM zone.

The subject of military and humanitarian missions having difficulties working along is long known. Humanitarians have always strictly avoided contact and cooperation with military missions in order to not be assimilated to their action and be consequently targeted during armed operations, whereas the military have been trying to add humanitarian components to their missions to appear more caring about local populations.

However, in the case of migrant rescuing in the Mediterranean, the relationship between both sectors could be renegotiated as both are acting in the same area, and following the same rules at sea. Therefore, in this case, the action of NGOs and navy vessels is similar and concerns the same population: migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean.

In this case, it is interesting for NGOs to rely on the protection of the EU and NATO as in all cases, a boat in the Mediterranean will be considered as a rescue opportunity for those who face the risk of drowning in international waters. This also puts the SAR NGOs in a dangerous position as they might be assimilated to military operations.

However, things have changed when EUNAVFOR MED’s mandate has been reinforced last 20 June 2016 . This has allowed the operation to use force in Libyan Territorial Waters and is a complete game changer in terms of SAR NGOs protection.

If for any reason, armed groups targeting military vessels have previously assimilated SAR NGOs to them, they might find themselves in danger. Therefore, SAR NGOs would ideally need to avoid protection of NATO and European Union ships to avoid confusion among those aiming to target military vessels.

‘Photo Credit Reuters’

Melanie Glodkiewicz, Human Rights at Sea intern

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