The virus that reveals the true colours of our humanity

This pandemic does not allow us the freedom to ignore human rights or instrumentalise the rule of law to promote an unacceptable discourse that divides people. The true colours of a nation are indeed in full view

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

These are dangerous times, politically.  

That level was reached yesterday, when the Prime Minister gave us a taste of the overweening power of the State: by bringing it down with force on a group of boisterous critics who filed a police complaint against the Armed Forces of Malta, and Robert Abela himself, for the involuntary homicide of five migrants. 

The story in a nutshell is this: a group of boat migrants that left Libya and drifted into the Maltese search and rescue area was not succoured by the AFM, after Malta closed its ports to migrant rescue charities at sea: citing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its resources.  

The boat was eventually rescued by a commercial vessel that took the migrants back to Libya: less five who died at sea, and another seven believed to be missing. Additionally, the NGO Alarm Phone shared an audio recording from a mayday call from migrants of the adrift boat, shared with the New York Times, accusing the AFM of sabotaging the migrant boat off the coast of Malta by going aboard and cutting an electrical cable. The Maltese government has not denied the claims. 

Is the Maltese government guilty of dereliction of duty by refusing to save people’s lives at sea? The answer, unfortunately, is yes: much like all EU member states who have shuttered their ports, and refuse to take in boat migrants being taken out to sea by Libyan people smugglers.  

Can we point an accusatory finger at the EU’s failure to address the humanitarian crisis in its own backyard? The answer to that is yes, too. On migration, the European Union has failed to provide a common solution, and member states themselves have proven to be intractable in agreeing on common redistribution mechanisms.  

The cost of ‘less Europe’ in migration as always punishes border countries like Malta (much as ‘less Europe’ in other matters of fiscal relief punishes economies on the European periphery). Malta as always is a price-taker in international relations.  

Nonetheless, a criminal complaint filed by the civil society group Repubblika, and signed by the Nationalist Party’s shadow justice minister Jason Azzopardi as legal counsel, has raised the government’s dander. That Repubblika is an NGO of one-time PN activists, in self-imposed exile from the party – which played an unstinting role in keeping the memory of Daphne Caruana Galizia alive with an incessant campaign for justice – does not go unnoticed by the Labour government.  

And while Jason Azzopardi was submitting the criminal complaint, PN leader Adrian Delia was visiting the Armed Forces of Malta to extend to them his party’s support. In this matter, too, the PN is divided. 

The reaction of the prime minister has been a zero-sum, cynical move to respond to Repubblika’s over-played hand, and exploit the divide inside the Nationalist Party. With a press conference that included the entire Cabinet, Abela savoured the fact that he was personally accused of involuntary homicide and that he had “given himself in to the police” for questioning; but also said that the 12 army officers accused by Repubblika would be impeded from carrying out their duties at sea at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is taking up all resources of the disciplined corps.  

Emboldened by the European Court of Human Rights decision to throw out a similar request from Repubblika, the PM used the occasion to double-down on Malta’s refusal to save asylum seekers at sea: a strategy that has involved the near-criminalisation of migrant rescue charities at sea (only one, Sea-Eye is currently operating, with others offering only ancillary support and unable to mount rescues in waters that are no longer manned by European navies and coast guards).  

Foreign minister Evarist Bartolo’s statement accusing ‘NGOs’ of abetting Libyan smugglers reinforced a line, espoused by the populist right-wing in Italy, to denigrate NGOs acting to save lives in the vacuum created by disinclined European governments.  

The social media bluster has been unstoppable since then, and it has reinvigorated a hard-line stance against activists, artists, journalists, and healthcare professionals who signed petitions calling on Abela to rescue migrant boats outside Maltese territorial waters. 

We cannot ignore the kind of manufactured consent that such a high-profile statement by the Maltese prime minister was intended to provoke. Minutes later, Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield tweeted a still from an Instituto Luce reel of Mussolini’s declaration of war in 1939, with a placard reading ‘Malta’ in the sea of supporters cheering on the fascist dictator. The message was aimed at ‘traitors’ in times of war.  

This line will only encourage people threatened by the invisible predator of the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on their livelihoods, to push aside human rights and view others who are also fleeing from the predators of slavery, destitution and guns in Libya, as undeserving of our humanitarian obligations. 

It is a complex issue, one recently placed in apposite context by the Malta Chamber of Psychologists: we are dealing with two categories of persons equally threatened by predators and “equally afraid, equally fighting for their lives”.  

But this should not put human life up for negotiation. “All lives have equal value. Every human person has the right to safety, let alone the right to exercise their freedom to live and thrive”. 

The threat to our humanity now is that the PM’s statement will unleash a stream of derogatory accusations against people who believe in international human rights for their own sake, and not just for political expedience. They include tens of thousands of decent people who understand very well the challenge the pandemic has presented to our health workers and other public servants, but don’t want the Maltese to lose their humanity. 

Irrespective of the authors of the criminal complaint, at law the right to request a police investigation on an alleged crime is sacrosanct. But the government has used the occasion to reinforce its hard-line stance; and in the process, has now set the worst kind of example to a nation that needs guidance more than ever in the time of this pandemic.  

This pandemic does not allow us the freedom to ignore human rights or instrumentalise the rule of law to promote an unacceptable discourse that divides people. The true colours of a nation are indeed in full view.