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Rethinking ‘Jurisdiction’ in International Human Rights Law in Rescue Operations at Sea in the Light of AS and Others v Italy and AS and Others v Malta: A New Right to be Rescued at Sea?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 December 2022

Silvia Dimitrova*
Lawyer and member of the Bar, Ontario, Canada
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In January 2021 the Human Rights Committee determined that Italy and Malta had both failed to protect the right to life of more than 200 migrants who perished in a shipwreck in 2013. The Committee tackled for the first time the question of extraterritorial application of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to persons in distress at sea. While finding the decision against Malta to be inadmissible, the Committee engaged in a significant analysis of the concept of jurisdiction in both decisions. This article analyses how the decisions interpret the concept of ‘jurisdiction’ and juxtaposes this analysis against the approaches taken in other international legal regimes. The article then theorises on the impact of these two decisions in helping to crystallise a new ‘right to be rescued at sea’.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press in association with the Faculty of Law, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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1 Human Rights Committee (HRC), AS and Others v Malta, Communication No 3043/2017 (27 January 2021), UN Doc CCPR/C/128/D/3043/2017.

2 HRC, AS and Others v Italy, Communication No 3042/2017 (27 January 2021), UN Doc CCPR/C/130/D/3042/2017.

3 Despite the finding by the HRC that the decision against Malta was inadmissible (para 6.9) on account of the applicants’ failure to exhaust domestic remedies, the author will examine this decision for its significance for the broader discussion of jurisdiction.

4 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (entered into force 23 March 1976) 999 UNTS 171 (ICCPR).

5 AS and Others v Malta (n 1) para 1.1.

6 ibid para 2.1.

7 ibid para 1.1.

8 ibid para 2.2.

9 AS and Others v Italy (n 2) para 7.7.

10 ibid para 2.3.

11 ibid para 7.7.

12 AS and Others v Malta (n 1) para 6.7.

13 HRC, General Comment No 31: The Nature of the General Legal Obligation Imposed on States Parties to the Covenant (26 May 2004), UN Doc CCPR/C/21/Rev1/Add 13.

14 AS and Others v Italy (n 2) para 7.4.

15 HRC, General Comment No 36 on Article 6 of the ICCPR, on the Right to Life (30 October 2018), UN Doc CCPR/C/GC/36.

16 ibid para 7.5.

17 Nassim Madjidian, ‘Mediterranean Responsibilities: Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction of Coastal States in the Context of Maritime Migration’, Verfassungsblog, 29 February 2021,

18 ibid.

19 International Maritime Organization (IMO), International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS Convention) (entered into force 25 May 1980) 1184 UNTS 3.

20 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR Convention) (entered into force 22 June 1985) 1403 UNTS.

21 AS and Others v Italy (n 2) para 7.8.

22 ibid para 7.8 (emphasis added); see also Paolo Busco, ‘Not All That Glitters Is Gold: The Human Rights Committee's Test for the Extraterritorial Application of the ICCPR in the Context of Search and Rescue Operations’, Opinio Juris, 2 March 2021,

23 AS and Others v Italy (n 2) para 8.5.

24 ibid.

25 ibid.

26 AS and Others v Malta (n 1) para 6.5.

27 ibid (emphasis added).

28 ibid para 6.9.

29 Patricia Vella De Fremeaux and Felicity G Attard, ‘Rescue at Sea and the Establishment of Jurisdiction: New Direction from the Human Rights Committee? Part I’, Opinio Juris, 3 March 2021,

30 Myron H Nordquist (ed), United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982: A Commentary (Martinus Nijhoff 1985) 177.

31 UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Problems related to the Rescue of Asylum-Seekers in Distress at Sea (26 August 1981), UN Doc EC/SCP/18,

32 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (entered into force 16 November 1994) 1833 UNTS 397.

33 ibid.

34 Vella De Fremeaux and Attard (n 29).

35 ibid.

36 Parliamentary Assembly, ‘Lives Lost in the Mediterranean Sea: Who is Responsible?’, 29 March 2012,

37 SOLAS Convention (n 19) Ch V, reg 33.

38 International Convention on Salvage 1989 (entered into force 17 July 1996) 1953 UNTS 163, art 10.

39 The relevant and equivalent provision in UNCLOS (n 32) is art 98(1b).

40 UNCLOS (n 32) art 98(2).

41 SOLAS Convention (n 19) Annex, Ch V, reg 7; SAR Convention (n 20) Annex, Ch 1, para 1.3.3 and Ch 2.

42 SOLAS Convention (n 19) Ch V, reg 7(1).

43 Michael Mulqueen, Deborah Sanders and Ian Speller (eds), Small Navies: Strategy and Policy for Small Navies in War and Peace (Ashgate 2016) 137.

44 SAR Convention (n 20) Annex, rule 2.3.1.

45 ibid Annex, rule 1.3.2.

46 ibid Annex, rule 2.3.2.

47 ibid Annex, rule 2.3.3.

48 Klepp, Silja, ‘A Double Bind: Malta and the Rescue of Unwanted Migrants at Sea, a Legal Anthropological Perspective on the Humanitarian Law of the Sea’ (2011) 23 International Journal of Refugee Law 538, 549CrossRefGoogle Scholar; García-Carriazo, Á Jiménez, ‘Small Island, Big Issue: Malta and Its Search and Rescue Region – SAR’ (2019) Paix et Sécurité Internationales 299, 310–11Google Scholar.

49 SAR Convention (n 20) Annex, rule 2.1.1

50 ibid Annex, rules 2.1.8, 2.1.10.

51 ibid Annex, rule 2.1.9.

52 Koka, Enkelejda and Veshi, Denard, ‘Irregular Migration by Sea: Interception and Rescue Interventions in Light of International Law and the EU Sea Borders Regulation’ (2019) 21 European Journal of Migration and Law 26, 4243CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 Vella De Fremeaux and Attard (n 29).

54 After loading 433 survivors on board a rescue ship, the captain was denied entry into Australian territorial waters to disembark the rescued migrants, notwithstanding communication about the grave medical state of several of the rescued migrants and the issuing of repeated distress signals by the Tampa. Australia's position was that the rescue by the MV Tampa occurred outside the search and rescue region of Australia and, as such, was not Australia's responsibility: Kenney, Frederick Jr and Tasikas, Vasilios, ‘The Tampa Incident: IMO Perspectives and Responses on the Treatment of Persons Rescued at Sea’ (2003) 12 Washington International Law Journal 144Google Scholar.

55 IMO Assembly, IMO Resolution A.920(22), ‘Review of Safety Measures and Procedures for the Treatment of Persons Rescued at Sea’, adopted 29 November 2001, IMO Doc A22/Res 920.

56 IMO, Resolution MSC.167(78), ‘Guidelines on the Treatment of Persons Rescued at Sea’, adopted 20 May 2004 (IMO Guidelines).

57 For a discussion of issues of concern in relation to rescue and disembarkation of smuggled migrants following the 2004 amendments, see Anne Gallagher and Fiona David, The International Law of Migrant Smuggling (Cambridge University Press 2014) 458ff.

58 IMO Guidelines (n 56) Annex 34 (Preamble); Annex, para 2.5.

59 ibid Appendix, para 2.

60 Gallagher and David (n 57) 461.

61 ibid (citing Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly, Report of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population, ‘The Interception and Rescue at Sea of Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Irregular Migrants’, Doc 12628, 1 June 2011, 16).

62 Gallagher and David (n 57) 461.

63 ibid Ch 3, 250–51.

64 Karen da Costa, The Extraterritorial Application of Selected Human Rights Treaties (Martinus Nijhoff 2013) 23.

65 ibid 41.

66 Milanovic, Marko, ‘From Compromise to Principle: Clarifying the Concept of State Jurisdiction in Human Rights Treaties’ (2008) 8 Human Rights Law Review 411, 434CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 UN General Assembly, Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: Note by the Secretary-General (7 August 2015), UN Doc A/70/303, para 12.

68 Committee on the Rights of the Child, Decision adopted by the Committee under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a Communications Procedure, concerning Communications No 79/2019 and No 109/2019 (2 November 2020), UN Docs CRC/C/85/D/79/2019 – CRC/C/85/D/109/2019, para 9.6; Joint General Comment No 4 (2017) of the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and No 23 (2017) of the Committee on the Rights of the Child on State Obligations regarding the Human Rights of Children in the Context of International Migration in Countries of Origin, Transit, Destination and Return (16 November 2017), UN Doc CMW/C/GC/4 – CRC/C/GC/23, paras 17(e) and 19.

69 Committee on the Rights of the Child, Decision concerning Communications No 79/2019 and No 109/2019, ibid para 9.

70 Gallagher and David (n 57) 251.

71 Dominic McGoldrick, ‘Extraterritorial Application of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’ in Fons Coomans and Menno T Kamminga (eds), Extraterritorial Application of Human Rights Treaties (Intersentia 2004) 41.

72 Shany, Yuval, ‘Taking Universality Seriously: A Functional Approach to Extraterritoriality in International Human Rights Law’ (2013) 7 Law and Ethics of Human Rights 47, 50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

73 HRC, General Comment No 31 (n 13) para 10 (emphasis added).

74 Gallagher and David (n 57) 252.

76 HRC, Concluding Observations: Israel (18 August 1998), UN Doc CCPR/C/79/Add.93.

77 Gallagher and David (n 57) 253 (citing HRC, Munaf v Romania, Communication No 1539/2006 (21 August 2009), UN Doc CCPR/C/96/D/1539/2006, para 14.2).

78 ibid.

79 Hathaway, Oona and others, ‘Human Rights Abroad: When Do Human Rights Treaty Obligations Apply Extraterritorially?’ (2011) 43 Arizona State Law Journal 389, 417Google Scholar.

80 AS and Others v Malta (n 1) para 4.

81 For further commentary, see Daniel Møgster, ‘Towards Universality: Impacting the Enjoyment of the Right to Life and the Extraterritorial Application of the ICCPR’, EJIL: Talk!, 27 November 2018,

82 Papastavridis, Efthymios, ‘The European Convention of Human Rights and Migration at Sea: Reading the “Jurisdictional Threshold” of the Convention under the Law of the Sea Paradigm’ (2020) 21 German Law Journal 417, 423CrossRefGoogle Scholar. According to the functional approach, states must ‘protect (international human rights law) in situations they can do so’: Shany (n 72) 71.

83 HRC, General Comment No 36 (n 15) para 63 (emphasis added).

84 Sarah Miller, ‘Revisiting Extraterritorial Jurisdiction: A Territorial Justification for Extraterritorial Jurisdiction under the European Convention’ (2009) 20 European Journal of International Law 1223–46.

85 Milanovic, Marko, ‘Al-Skeini and Al-Jedda in Strasbourg’ (2012) 23 European Journal of International Law 121CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

86 ECtHR, Banković v Belgium and Others, App no 52207/99, 12 December 2001, para 61.

87 Moreno-Lax, Violeta, ‘The Architecture of Functional Jurisdiction: Unpacking Contactless Control—On Public Powers, S.S. and Others v. Italy, and the “Operational Model”’ (2020) 21 German Law Journal 385, 398CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

88 King, Hugh, ‘Extraterritorial Human Rights Obligations of States’ (2009) 9 Human Rights Law Review 521, 533CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

89 Gallagher and David (n 57) 260; see also Papastavridis (n 82) 422.

90 ECtHR, Ilascu and Others v Moldova and Russia, App no 48787/99, 8 July 2004, paras 312–14.

91 Gallagher and David (n 57) 261.

92 ECtHR, Al-Skeini and Others v United Kingdom, App no 55721/07, 7 July 2011, para 137; ECtHR, Carter v Russia, App no 20914/0, 21 September 2021.

93 ibid.

94 ECtHR, Medvedyev and Others v France, App no 3394/03, 29 March 2010, para 67.

95 ECtHR, Hirsi Jamaa v Italy, App no 27765/09, 23 February 2012, para 180.

96 ibid para 79.

97 Patrick Müller and Peter Slominski, ‘Breaking the Legal Link but not the Law? The Externalization of EU Migration Control through Orchestration in the Central Mediterranean’ (2020) 1 Journal of European Public Policy 8–9.

98 Hirsi Jamaa (n 95) paras 131–33.

99 Koka and Veshi (n 52) 29; CJEU, C-411/10, NS v Secretary of State for the Home Department, and C-493/10, ME v Refugee Applications Commissioner, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, 21 December 2011, ECLI:EU:C:2011:865, para 94; ECtHR, MSS v Belgium and Greece, App no 30696/09, 21 January 2011, para 358.

100 Papastavridis (n 82) 425.

101 ECtHR, Women on Waves and Others v Portugal, App no 31276/05, 13 January 2009, para 23.

102 ICJ, Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Advisory Opinion (2004) ICJ Rep 136, [109] (emphasis added).

103 Gallagher and David (n 57) 256.

104 Wall Advisory Opinion (n 102) para 111.

105 Gallagher and David (n 57) 256 (citing John Cerone, ‘Out of Bounds? Considering the Reach of International Human Rights Law’ (2006) New York University School of Law Center for Human Rights and Global Justice Working Paper No 5, 19.

106 ICJ, Application of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Georgia v Russian Federation), Provisional Measures, Order of 15 October 2008, [2008] ICJ Rep 353, [109].

107 Hirsi Jamaa (n 95).

108 Madjidian (n 17).

109 Busco (n 22).

110 ibid.

111 AS and Others v Italy (n 2) dissenting opinion of Andreas Zimmerman, para 4.

112 ibid concurring opinion of José Santos Pais, para 3.

113 Madjidian (n 17) (citing AS and Others v Italy (n 2) dissenting opinion of Yuval Shany, Christof Heyns and Photini Pazartzis, para 5.

114 Madjidian (n 17).

115 Vella De Fremeaux and Attard (n 29); see SAR Convention (n 20) Annex, Cap 2.1.1.

116 AS and Others v Italy (n 2) concurring opinion of Gentian Zyberi, para 3.

117 IMO Guidelines (n 56).

118 AS and Others v Italy (n 2) concurring opinion of Gentian Zyberi, para 3.

119 ibid para 8.3.

120 AS and Others v Malta (n 1) para 6.7.

121 AS and Others v Italy (n 2) para 8.3.

122 ibid concurring opinion of José Santos Pais, paras 3, 10; see also ibid concurring opinion of Vasilka Sancin, para 3.

123 International Convention on Salvage (n 38); Trevisanut, Seline, ‘Is there a Right to be Rescued at Sea? A Constructive View’ (2014) 4 QIL Zoom-in 3, 5Google Scholar.

124 IMO Guidelines (n 56) Annex, para 6.7.

125 AS and Others v Malta (n 1) dissenting opinion of Andreas Zimmermann, para 9; see also AS and Others v Italy (n 2) dissenting opinion of David Moore, para 4.

126 SDG v Italy, Communication to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (anonymised version),; ECtHR, SS and Others v Italy, App no 21660/18, 11 November 2019, Written Submissions,

127 Missing Migrants, ‘Tracking Deaths along Migratory Migrants’,

128 Matthew Agius, ‘Malta Government Paid for Libya Pushbacks “Three to Four” Times, Shipper Reveals’, Malta Today, 19 May 2021,