No excuse for violating human rights

Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo certainly had a point when he stated, on Thursday, that “Malta cannot be expected to carry the weight of [the] disproportionate burden of migration, when ultimately it is protecting a European external border.” 

But while there is room to argue for more European solidarity, the EU’s failure to act cannot be used as a pretext for Malta to simply abandon its own international obligations when it comes to search and rescue, and recognising the right of asylum seekers to ask for international protection. 

Nor does the EU’s intransigence absolve Malta of violating human rights.  

For the past three weeks, the Maltese government has adopted a policy of keeping asylum seekers on board ‘pleasure cruisers’ outside Maltese territorial waters, indefinitely, until the EU agrees to some form of relocation/responsibility sharing agreement. 

From a human rights perspective, this is utterly indefensible. As pointed out by 18 NGOs in a letter to the European Commission this week, Malta is denying these men their right to claim their right to asylum – a right that is enshrined in the Universal Charter – as well as inviting international opprobrium for what amounts to inhumane, degrading treatment. 

Detaining 130 people on a ferry boat for three weeks on the Mediterranean can only lead to serious psychological harm. Already there are reports that some of the migrants are on hunger strike in an act of desperation. If the situation persists for much longer, it could easily lead to acts of self-harm or even suicide attempts. 

But there is more to this unwholesome situation than the human rights of the people involved (though this remains the most serious consideration). What also makes this policy unjustifiable is also the declared strategic reason: i.e., that by holding them out at sea, Malta hopes to force the European Commission into obtaining a mandatory relocation of the asylum seekers and migrants. 

Effectively, Malta is using the lives of 130 people as pawns in a dangerous foreign policy game. As such, the actions of the government invalidate its own claims of being the ‘victim’ in this scenario: for even if it is true that our country has been let down by the EU, the government’s disproportionate reaction will only impart the perception of ruthlessness with the most vulnerable.  

Sadly, there is also a populist dimension: for it is undeniable that such drastic measures will boost the government’s popularity, among a wider public that is (understandably) frustrated and exasperated by the endless stalemate. 

But such short-term political gain will surely be counterbalanced by immeasurable reputational damage. Malta is now showing the world that it is hard of heart, and applying brinkmanship tactics that will surely burn bridges in the EU. 

There can be no doubt that Malta is right in insisting that the EU must come up with a migrant relocation deal that is also mandatory and long-term; but if Malta is going to scar the lives of 130 people to achieve such a deal, its reputation will be sealed inside the EU as an intransigent player (at a time when it is already at a low ebb, owing to the events of the past three years). 

At the same time, Malta is already playing another game of brinkmanship by withdrawing from Operation Irini – an EU military operation aimed at enforcing an arms embargo in Libya - and showing itself to be favourable to Turkey. This may even make sense, on the grounds that Operation Irini is in itself highly questionable.  

But combined with a policy that infringes human rights, these tactics might only serve to further alienate Malta from the European mainstream. 

Rather than just playing hardball, Prime Minister Robert Abela must show his mettle as a negotiator and a skilful statesman who convinces his EU counterparts through the power of persuasion. 

He must also understand that to win EU confidence, he will have to show that Malta is ready to play its part - and not play a dirty game of pushbacks or diversions to Italy, which is itself suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Finally, if Malta is returning to a new normality, as Abela claims, then we must also restore our human rights obligations, get the courts back to functioning, and start holding physical press conferences when he and his deputy prime minister are addressing the nation. 

After all, the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be a ‘crisis’, only when it suits Malta’s foreign policy objectives. 

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