NATO, Italy and the African Lapemdusa Tragedy

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We have heard of cases of man’s inhumanity to man in foreign lands in the past, which manifests in, among other ways, the hounding of illegal migrants seeking greener pastures by the police or citizens, the hurling of such migrants into the deep cold sea, and the assassination of migrants by security agents. However, what is more heartbreaking is the abandonment of refugees fleeing war zones in a drifting ship to be killed without offering any help when it was simply human to do so. That was what happened recently on the Italian high seas when a boat carrying 72 Africans was abandoned by a NATO military helicopter, a NATO warship nearby and the Italian coastguard despite the received distress calls from the Ghanaian captain of the boat. The 72 passengers were of African descent fleeing the war-ravaged Libya for a safe haven in Italy. These included 47 Ethiopians, 7 Eritreans, 6 Ghanaians, 5 Sudanese, and 7 Nigerians. 62 of the passengers died miserably.

The report, gathered from the UK Guardian, further indicated that in the boat were twenty women, children and a one-year old toddler. The boat was heading for Lampedusa, an Italian island 290km northwest of Libya, but ran out of fuel after 18 hours thus navigating in troubled waters. A satellite phone call from the embattled boat to Rome was quickly relayed to the Italian coastguard by the Habeshia refugee rights organization run by a Catholic priest, Father Zerai who promptly alerted the Italian maritime authorities. Reminiscent of the refusal of the Western world to help the Rwandan people during the 1994 genocide; in this March 2011 episode, both the Italian authorities and the NATO helicopter and warship which got the distress call made no efforts whatsoever to come to the Africans’ rescue, and for 16 days of drifting in open waters without fuel, food, water and help, 62 of them died of thirst and hunger.

The act of the Italian and NATO authorities was against any known humanitarian principles or human rights. It is criminal and totally inhuman. Indeed, such act says a lot about the possible thinking of the West about Africa: their wanton disregard for the African plight and belief that the black man does not deserve life as such. The callous act even appears more preposterous as the fleeing refugees were only victims of the Libyan crisis exacerbated by the persistent NATO airstrikes. If NATO indeed means well for Libya by its intervention and is interested in helping the Africans by getting rid of Khadafy’s arbitrary rule, then it is naturally expected that it would quickly come to the aid of any African in distress. Their abandonment of those refugees in Lampedusa to die thus implies that NATO’s presence in the African leadership crisis in North Africa is suspect. There is more to it than what is claimed.

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What if the refugees were Europeans? Or Americans? We are certain the response would have been swift, effective and successful in rescuing all on board. NATO would have deployed the helicopter and ship nearby to carry out a “commando” rescue mission, which would be widely publicized. The Italian coastguard would also have swung into action and use all within its capacity or beyond it, to get everyone aboard the boat safely ashore. Incidentally however, the human beings we are talking about here were Africans- people of the black race who create avoidable headache for the international community.

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Beyond the moral question of this despicable act is also the emerging issue of the International Maritime Law on Safety of Lives. The Lampedusa tragedy constitutes a flagrant violation of the law by both the Italian and NATO authorities. This is similar to a serious crime against humanity. It is investigable, condemnable and punishable in a competent International Criminal Court.

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The incident also calls to question the poor governance at home that impels Africans to be fleeing from pillar to post in search of better livelihood all over the world, including critical areas. If the domestic conditions are enabling, they would sit back at home and lead a comfortable and rewarding life. But that has not been so. Due to bad government, insecurity, conflict and poverty, Africans have become pastoralists seeking greener pastures everywhere. In most cases, they are very much unwelcome and become easy preys in the hands of racists and cruel governments. While we advocate that the leaders should rise up to the occasion and better the lot of their people so that they can remain in their countries; we also call for the outright condemnation and prosecution of the NATO and Italian parties that refused to render help to the Africans when moral and legal codes compel it. Also, the UN and African Union should look into the matter, respond appropriately and demand restitution for the families and respond appropriately.

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