Immediate 6 July 2017
Planned EU NGO Code of Conduct threatens life-saving search and rescue operations
“Failure to sign this Code of Conduct or failure to comply with its obligations may result in the refusal by the Italian State to authorize the access to national ports, subject to compliance with the existing international conventions.“
Leaked draft EU Code of Conduct.
Human Rights at Sea continues to raise it concerns about the new direction being taken by the European Commission and some Member States to restrict the freedom of action of humanitarian actors, including European citizens, working to save life at sea in the Mediterranean. This is as an unintended consequence of the removal of the Ghadaffi regime in 2011 and regional instability compounded by continuous mixed migration flows throughout Africa, especially via the Sahel region.
Human Rights at Sea has received a leaked copy of the proposed Code of Conduct which contains a distinct lack of information and explicit reference to the need to save life at sea, thereby upholding bedrock European humanitarian principles and norms.
Moreover, it focuses on using civil society search and rescue (SAR) NGOs effectively as an extension of the limited border force assets, thereby interfering with their independence and well-established humanitarian principles as clearly laid out in the existing voluntary Code of Conduct drafted by NGOs earlier this year.
The threat and consequences from the proposed draft text of non-cooperation by NGOs is explicitly spelt out and threatening to humanitarian values.
On the 3rd of July 2017, Human Rights at Sea expressed its deep concerns of a state-led imposed Code of Conduct of search and rescue NGOs in the central Mediterranean through a letter to the Commissioner of Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos.
In this letter, Human Rights at Sea emphasized the importance of co-ordinated civil society search and rescue operations as has been highlighted on numerous occasions in reports published by the Italian Coastguard. 
Human Rights at Sea would nonetheless fairly wish to express its recognition concerning the pressure on the Italian government in managing the coordination of unprecedented numbers of rescues in the rescue zone between Italy and Libya. Moreover, the charity would like to highlight the high number of rescues led by the Italian Coastguard.
However, the lack of apparent direct engagement with SAR NGOs in the drafting of the new state led Code of Conduct shows a worrying disjointed approach to the issue.
On the 4th July, the European Commission stated in a press release that, quote: “[Italy] Draft, in consultation with the Commission and on the basis of a dialogue with NGOs [HRAS emphasis], a Code of Conduct for NGOs carrying out search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean.”
It is in this spirit of dialogue and co-operation, prioritizing the legal and moral obligation of rescuing lives in distress at sea, that the majority of SAR NGOs have already agreed upon basic principles of action to increase their levels of professionalisation, but also their levels of joint coordination.
The Voluntary Code of Conduct for Search and Rescue Operations undertaken by civil society Non-Government Organisations in the Mediterranean Sea was published in February 2017, and presented at the European Parliament on 29 March 2017, and it works.
Human Rights at Sea asserts that, at the very least, the overt recognition of the existence of such a pre-existing document and the inclusion of its content (which reflects well-established international humanitarian principles and norms) continues within European institutions, as well within future applicable policy documents.
David Hammond, CEO of Human Rights at Sea commented: “Civil society-led search and rescue NGOs have been a principle proactive search and rescue humanitarian actor in the central Mediterranean for the past five years. This has been undertaken on a voluntary basis and which has involved European citizens putting their lives in danger to save life at sea. Imposed or planned imposed restrictions on the freedom of action by NGOs without consultation or engagement should be challenged at first instance, and any planned EU Code of Conduct must have NGO input to support a comprehensive approach to search and rescue in the Mediterranean. This should not be a precursor to exclusion of NGOs for political reasoning, or more worrying, a precursor to legislation that has the same deliberate effect.”
Human Rights at Sea recommends that the European Commission, European Parliament and all applicable Ministers, include civil society SAR NGOs in discussions regarding any operation planned in regard to migration flows in the central Mediterranean Sea, including any imposition of an EU-led Code of Conduct.