Tag Archives: UN Convention on the Law of the Sea

Hirsi v. Italy: The Issue of Jurisdiction Under ECHR Article 1

The Court found that ECHR Article 1 jurisdiction existed because “the applicants were under the continuous and exclusive de jure and de facto control of the Italian authorities” from the point in time when the applicants’ boats were intercepted and the applicants were transferred to the Italian ships up until the point when the applicants were turned over to Libyan authorities in Tripoli. [para. 81]

The Court noted that the jurisdiction of a State is essentially territorial and therefore “the Court has accepted only in exceptional cases that acts of the Contracting States performed, or producing effects, outside their territories can constitute an exercise of jurisdiction by them within the meaning of Article 1 of the Convention (see Drozd and Janousek v. France and Spain, 26 June 1992, § 91, Series A no. 240; Bankoviç, decision cited above, § 67; and Ilaşcu and Others, cited above, § 314).” [para. 72].

“73.  [***] In each case, the question whether exceptional circumstances exist which require and justify a finding by the Court that the State was exercising jurisdiction extra-territorially must be determined with reference to the particular facts, for example full and exclusive control over a prison or a ship (see Al-Skeini and Others v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 55721/07, § 132 and 136, 7 July 201; Medvedyev and Others, cited above, § 67).

74.  Whenever the State through its agents operating outside its territory exercises control and authority over an individual, and thus jurisdiction, the State is under an obligation under Article 1 to secure to that individual the rights and freedoms under Section 1 of the Convention that are relevant to the situation of that individual. In this sense, therefore, the Court has now accepted that Convention rights can be ‘divided and tailored’ (see Al-Skeini, cited above, § 136 and 137; compare Banković, cited above, § 75).”

The Court rejected Italy’s jurisdictional arguments.  While Italy acknowledged that the events in question took place on board its military ships, Italy asserted that due to the nature of the operation, the military ships and their personnel never exercised “absolute and exclusive control” over the applicants. [para. 64] Italy argued that its actions constituted a “rescue on the high seas of persons in distress” and therefore “could in no circumstances be described as a maritime police operation.” [para. 65] Italy argued that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea obligated it to rescue persons in distress and that carrying out its obligations under the Convention on the Law of the Sea  “did not in itself create a link between the State and the persons concerned establishing the State’s jurisdiction.” [para. 65]

The Court concluded that Italy “[could not] circumvent its ‘jurisdiction’ under the [ECHR] by describing the events at issue as rescue operations on the high seas.”   The Court took note of the events in the case of Medvedyev and Others where French military personnel intercepted a vessel flying the flag of a third State and took control of crew members who remained on board the intercepted vessel. [para. 80]

“81.  The Court observes that in the [Hirsi] case the events took place entirely on board ships of the Italian armed forces, the crews of which were composed exclusively of Italian military personnel. In the Court’s opinion, in the period between boarding the ships of the Italian armed forces and being handed over to the Libyan authorities, the applicants were under the continuous and exclusive de jure and de facto control of the Italian authorities. Speculation as to the nature and purpose of the intervention of the Italian ships on the high seas would not lead the Court to any other conclusion.

82.  Accordingly, the events giving rise to the alleged violations fall within Italy’s ‘jurisdiction’ within the meaning of Article 1 of the Convention.”

In some respects, the Article 1 jurisdictional issue was easier to address because the applicants were removed from their vessels and taken on board the Italian military vessels.  The Court noted that under “relevant provisions of the law of the sea, a vessel sailing on the high seas is subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the State of the flag it is flying” [para. 77] and further that this principle is contained within the Italian Navigation Code. [para. 78]  The Court accordingly found that de jure control had been exercised over the applicants after they were transferred from their boats to the Italian ships.

It seems clear that Italy intends in the future to resume some sort of bi-lateral immigration control measures with Libya.  It remains to be seen whether Italy will try to implement some modified form of the push-back practice that has now been condemned by the Court.  One of the provisions in one of the bi-lateral agreements between Italy and Libya mentioned in the Hirsi judgment provides for the deployment of

“maritime patrols with joint crews, made up of equal numbers of Italian and Libyan personnel having equivalent experience and skills. The patrols shall be conducted in Libyan and international waters under the supervision of Libyan personnel and with participation by Italian crew members, and in Italian and international waters under the supervision of Italian personnel and with participation by the Libyan crew members.”  Additional Protocol of 4 February 2009 [para. 19]

The question arises whether Italy could evade jurisdiction and circumvent its Convention obligations by lessening its control over a new push-back scheme.  How would the Court have viewed the push-back events had they occurred, as the operational protocol above contemplates, “in … international waters under the supervision of Libyan personnel and with participation by Italian crew members”?

Click here (EN) and here (FR) for the Grand Chamber’s judgment.

Click here (EJIL: Talk!), here (ECHR Blog), here (UK Human Rights Blog) and here (Open Society Blog) for more analysis of the Judgment.


Filed under Analysis, Council of Europe, European Court of Human Rights, Italy, Judicial, Libya, Mediterranean

Articles: European Journal of Int’l Law and Goettingen Journal of Int’l Law

Fighting Maritime Piracy under the European Convention on Human Rights, European Journal of International Law, Volume 22, Issue 3, by Stefano Piedimonte Bodini, Head of Division at the Programme and Budget Department of the Council of Europe (author’s opinions are strictly personal).  (subscription required)

Abstract: “On the basis of real examples of anti-piracy operations conducted in the Indian Ocean by European navies, the article examines the legal implications of such military actions and their judicial medium- and long-term consequences in the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights. The only existing authority directly addressing maritime piracy, although from the sole perspective of state jurisdiction, is the recent Grand Chamber judgment in Medvedyev and Others v. France. The Court’s approach and conclusions in Medvedyev will be analysed in section 2. Section 3 will explore other important issues likely to be raised under the Convention by anti-piracy operations. Section 4 will consider the question of state responsibility, i.e., jurisdiction and attribution, in the context of anti-piracy operations carried out on the high seas or on the territory of third states.”

Refugees on the High Seas: International Refugee Law Solutions to a Law of the Sea Problem,” Goettingen Journal of International Law, by Killian S. O’Brien. (open access)

Abstract: “Following in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Europe’s southern marine borders have been the showplace of human tragedies previously unseen on this scale and the issue of refugees on the high seas has assumed a newfound importance. This article examines the flawed system provided by the ‘Constitution of the Oceans’, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea for the protection of the lives of migrants at sea. It submits that international refugee law is well-equipped to assume a greater responsibility in ensuring the protection of those involved. Although the concept of non-refoulement cannot be stretched ad absurdum, it may still be reasonably interpreted as providing a temporary right to disembark for the purpose of processing possible asylum applications. In the long-term, a system of burden-sharing and permanent, yet flexible, reception agreements remain the only sustainable solution.”

Rights at the Frontier: Border Control and Human Rights Protection of Irregular International Migrants,” Goettingen Journal of International Law, by Julian M. Lehmann. (open access)

Abstract: “In light of recent events causing people’s movement into Europe, continued misuse of the term “migrant” in policy making and public discourse, and at the occasion of events celebrating the international regime of refugee protection, the human rights protection of irregular migrants is explored in relation to irregular migrants’ entry/admission and expulsion/deportation. The term “migrant” has, in contrast to the term “refugee”, no bearing on whether or not an international migrant has a need for international protection. While many irregular migrants have no such need, other migrants may be refugees or be in need of international protection “outside” the framework of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The paper analyses the international human rights law framework applying to individuals with and without need for international protection, when their claims have a socio-economic dimension. The principle of non-refoulement remains the most important source of protection for irregular migrants; it is not concerned with the irregular status of a migrant and also has a bearing on procedural rights in status determination. Socio-economic motivations for flight are not a bar to being a refugee within the meaning of the 1951 Convention, if their underlying cause is persecution, or if motives are mixed. Refugee law can accommodate such claims and overcome a strict dichotomy but is currently only rarely and restrictively applied in this regard. In expulsion cases, virtually only the prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment is relevant. For individuals that have no need for international protection there are mitigating individual circumstances which a state has to take into account. All pertinent norms of international human rights law apply without distinction and irregular migrants may have, just as refugees may have, humanitarian needs that states should meet.”

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Filed under Analysis, European Court of Human Rights, European Union

Moreno-Lax, Int J Refugee Law, “Seeking Asylum in the Mediterranean: Against a Fragmentary Reading of EU Member States’ Obligations Accruing at Sea”

The latest edition of the International Journal of Refugee Law, contains an article by Violeta Moreno-Lax (PhD Candidate at Université catholique de Louvain; Visiting Fellow 2010-11 at Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford) entitled “Seeking Asylum in the Mediterranean: Against a Fragmentary Reading of EU Member States’ Obligations Accruing at Sea.”

Abstract: “Although both international and EU law impose a number of obligations on the EU Member States with regard to persons in distress at sea, their effective implementation is limited by the manner in which they are being interpreted. The fact that the persons concerned are migrants, who may seek asylum upon rescue, has given rise to frequent disputes and to episodes of non-compliance. Frontex missions and the Italian 2009 push-back campaign illustrate the issue. With the objective of clarifying the scope of common obligations and to establish minimum operational arrangements for joint maritime operations, the EU has adopted a set of common guidelines for the surveillance of the external maritime borders. On the basis of the principle of systemic interpretation, this article intends to contribute to the clarification of the main obligations in international and European law binding upon the EU Member States when they operate at sea.”

This is a revised and updated version of the paper presented at the 12th IASFM Conference held in Nicosia, 28 June-2 July 2009.  [The article was written and sent for typesetting before the various uprisings in North Africa – IJRL Editor, 4 March 2011]

Click here for link.  (Subscription or payment required.)

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Filed under Analysis, Eastern Atlantic, European Court of Human Rights, European Union, Frontex, Greece, Italy, Libya, Malta, Mauritania, Mediterranean, Senegal, Spain