The "left to die boat" in the Mediterranean and NATO's Murderous Mission

from A World to Win News Service 

Calls for harsh treatment of immigrants by right-wing politicians are so common they've become part of the background noise for many people.

Yet a Council of Europe report presents evidence that NATO has implemented a policy that goes beyond what even the most openly far-right politicians dare publicly propose: sentencing migrants to death.

As the report scathingly states, the Mediterranean is one of the world's most closely-watched seas, and during the 2011 NATO war on Libya almost every vessel in the eastern waters was under observation by land and sea-based radars and orbiting spy satellites. Yet during this same year at least 1,500 people are known to have died while attempting to reach Europe.

Among the reasons for these mass deaths is the collapse, at least temporarily, of the previous means by which the European powers sought to reduce the number of people crossing over from the southern shores. Most are from North and Sub-Saharan African countries these and other imperialists dominate and exploit, creating economic and social conditions where, for many people, it makes more sense to risk death than go on living as before. The number of people taking to the seas in small boats soared after chaos enveloped regimes in Tunisia and Libya that had been given the job of arresting would-be immigrants and sinking their boats if necessary. Now the European countries have been forced to do more of their own dirty work.

What makes the case behind this report unique is not necessarily the number of people who died, nor that their deaths were so clearly preventable, but the fact that the criminal responsibility for this particular episode has been thoroughly documented.

Armed Libyan security forces made 72 people–50 men, 20 women and two babies–board an inflatable boat in Tripoli on March 27, 2011. Under attack by NATO, the Gaddafi regime reacted in a manner typical of it, using human beings as disposable objects to be employed in its alternating cooperation and conflict with the imperialist powers. Gaddafi was throwing out Black Africans as if they were stones hurled against the West. The boat's extra fuel tanks and water containers were removed so that more people could be crammed aboard.

The dingy left port after midnight. It was bound for the Italian island of Lampedusa, so close to North Africa that people on one shore can sometimes glimpse the other. After 18 hours, when the slow-moving boat should have arrived, the passengers used a satellite phone to contact a priest in Italy, who notified the authorities. The satellite phone service provider gave the Italian Coast Guard the boat's exact coordinates. An official "vessel in distress" was sent out to alert all military, commercial and other ships in the area.

Two hours later a military helicopter flew over the rubber boat. A few hours after that, the same or a similar helicopter returned and lowered down packs of biscuits and water bottles on ropes. The boat passengers could see the aircraft's crew members, who gave what they thought was a signal that it would return, and that meanwhile the boat should not change position. The helicopter never came back. A storm broke out, filling the boat with seawater and tossing some passengers into the waves, where they drowned. Later, several passing fishing boats, who had very likely also received the distress call, refused to provide assistance, but fisherman pointed the direction to Lampedusa.

The passengers gave up hope that they would be rescued if their boat remained in place. The motors were turned back on and the boat resumed moving toward the Italian island. The next day it ran out of fuel and began to drift. After five days at sea people started to die. At about ten days, when half were dead, it was spotted by a large military ship, either an aircraft carrier or another vessel carrying helicopters.

"Some people were wearing civilian clothing, others were in military uniform," said a quote from survivor Dain Haile Gebre recently provided to the UK newspaper Guardian. (March 29, 2012) "They took photos of us with cameras and portable phones. We took our dead people in our arms, asking for help. Some of us drank seawater to make them understand we needed drinking water."

Several passengers jumped into the water and tried to push the boat towards the ship. Then the military vessel abandoned them.

On April 10 the rubber boat washed up on rocks close to the Libyan town of Zilten, far to the east of Tripoli. Only 11 of the group's original 72 people were still alive. They were arrested and given little medical care. Another person soon died in prison.

One survivor, Abu Kurke Kebato, a 22-year-old refugee from the Oromia area in Ethiopia, later set out in another boat and this time made it to Lampedusa. Recently he and his wife, who had applied for asylum in the Netherlands, were arrested and are being held for deportation. He is the source of the above quotation from Gebre that appeared in the Guardian. Dutch authorities confiscated Kebato's phone to prevent him from giving any more interviews.

It was a reporter for the Guardian that first brought this story to light a year ago. At that time, NATO authorities claimed that the military organization had never received a distress call and that no NATO units were ever located anywhere near the drifting boat.

That first claim has now been disproved by Tineke Strik, a European Parliament member from the Netherlands, who was commissioned to investigate and write a report for the Council of Europe's Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons. She produced a copy of a fax sent to NATO by the Rome Maritime Rescue Committee about the boat in distress, along with a highest-priority emergency message sent to all ships in the Sicily Channel. According to newspaper reports, NATO leadership has had to admit that it received the message, but still claims that it knows nothing about the boat's two contacts with military units, the helicopter and later the warship.

The Council of Europe investigator demanded that NATO release its satellite imagery of the area during the time of this tragedy, so that criminal charges can be filed against those directly responsible. While NATO almost certainly has the resources to establish exactly what happened, including the detailed logs its ships are required to keep, that information is secret.

The U.S. and UK have refused to answer letters regarding the location of their naval assets during the timeframe in question. Other NATO countries have denied any presence near the dingy's location. The investigator obtained a photo of the boat taken from a French warplane, but France has not cooperated. There is also evidence that contrary to NATO claims, a Spanish frigate was nearby. She remarks that "responsibility is easily shifted back and forth" between the countries involved and NATO command, with such tricks making it very difficult to verify leads she has received.

But, she emphasizes, regardless of the national flag of the criminal vessel or vessels involved, they were under overall NATO command, and it is NATO as an organization that is responsible for what she calls "the left-to-die boat."

This entire incident occurred in what NATO called its "Maritime Surveillance Area" in Libyan waters. The report makes it clear that at least on some level NATO authorities were aware of the drifting rubber boat and the plight of its passengers, and yet chose to let them die. The fact that NATO first lied and since then has resorted to keeping information secret, instead of trying to cooperate with the investigator in determining the facts or even trying to refute the Strik report, tends to confirm the validity of her conclusions. In fact, this continued evasion and veil of secrecy signals that the crimes involved are being covered up at the highest level, which of course also implies that they are approved on that level.

From all available facts about what happened to these 72 people, this incident can be taken as indicating policy and not a series of accidents.

Of course, when faced with the accusation that people were deliberately left to die, there is an argument, suggested in some commentaries on the Strik report, that NATO was simply too busy waging war on Libya to deal with six dozen civilians. But if that is the case, then what was this war, labelled Operation "Unified Protector" because it was supposedly launched to "protect civilian lives," really about?

NATO's arrogant silence about the deaths in the sea lanes under its responsibility has been echoed by a similar response to accusations that its forces killed civilians on a large scale on the ground during this war. NATO has been able to insist that there were no "confirmed" civilian casualties only because it has refused to confirm or cooperate with investigations of numerous incidents. The New York Times reported that last year it gave NATO a 27-page memo documenting nine attacks on civilians. For instance, repeated bombing runs wiped out 34 people, including women and children, in the farming village of Majer. (NYT, March 31, 2012)

All of these incidents – and NATO's attitude toward the accusations – reveal an absolute disregard for civilians and human life in general when it comes to the imperialist powers' "higher" economic and political interests. The dots to be connected include not only the "left-to-die" boat and the attack on Libya, with its disastrous aftermath for the people, but NATO's war on Afghanistan – in which nearly all Afghans have become targets for the occupation troops – and its current threats to intervene in Syria, and maybe attack Iran.

(Full text of the report "Lives lost in the Mediterranean Sea: who is responsible?" at assembly.coe.int/CommitteeDocs/2012/20120329_mig_RPT.EN.pdf)

This article appeared on the site Revolution.

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