Photo: Consolidated Rescue Group

Four international NGOs have published a joint statement accusing the Maltese authorities of breaking international law by forcefully dragging 500 migrants in distress in Malta’s search and rescue area back to Libya. Read it, especially for its detail because it is the level of detail that should inform your judgement on its credibility.

The Maltese authorities deny this in response to questions by Times of Malta. There isn’t much detail in their response. Take note of that because that too should inform your judgement on the AFM’s credibility.

They say they never saw the boat that was supposed to have 500 people on it. The Maltese authorities did not attempt to give an explanation as to who may have been claiming to have been stranded on this boat speaking repeatedly over satellite phone to the NGOs. The NGOs may have imagined it. Malta’s army did not see the boat, ergo the boat didn’t exist, ergo the boat was not pushed back to Libya.

We’re none the wiser. The NGOs used their ships and planes to try to find the boat over the long hours when no one at Malta’s rescue command centre was ignoring their calls. The fact is the sea is big and the NGOs’ reach is small. They didn’t find the ship.

You may wish to reduce this to they said this, and the others said that. NGOs said there was a boat. The Maltese army said there wasn’t.

Except that if the NGOs are wrong nothing but their reputation is hurt, which is what the Maltese authorities seem to be interested to achieve. If, however, the NGOs are right, 55 children, 45 women, and 400 men were abandoned for long hours on a boat taking water until all the risks they took to reach a place of safety were frustrated by their forceful return to the horrors of detention, abuse, and forced labour in Libya. Which is also what the Maltese authorities seem to be keen to achieve.

It matters who is lying. And yet, you can’t ask the Maltese army questions and expect meaningful, detailed answers. They claim to be responsible for Malta’s security and defence and therefore insist they are above the inquisition or “curiosity” (as they sometimes called it) of journalists, volunteers, or lawyers holding them to account.

This national security business is an excuse, and a cheap one at that. Our national security is threatened by traffickers, by the military of aggressive nations, and by ecological disasters waiting to happen. Our national security is not threatened by children, women, and men, possessing nothing more than the clothes they are wearing, stranded on non-seaworthy vessels two thirds of the way between here and Benghazi.

We need to stop pretending we need defending from people who can’t get a plane ticket to fly here because they’re not allowed to move from whichever hell hole they come out of without risking their very lives.

The national security excuse is being used to justify all manner of complicity with this misconduct. Government ministers, who are supposed to be the civilian oversight on the military, will not question the army and will not provide any public policy framework that the public can hold the military’s behaviour against. Whether behind closed doors or behind open ones Parliament is never, ever seen to seek reports from the military, which means there is no Parliamentary oversight whatsoever.

The police won’t touch the army as we’ve seen when Repubblika asked the police to investigate allegations that soldiers acted unlawfully in April 2020. It is perhaps unfair to judge the judiciary by the conduct of Joe Mifsud, but there’s no discernible enthusiasm for judicial oversight either.

The press, of course, is ignored. NGOs can ring the army’s phones until their fingers bleed, but the army behaves as if they didn’t exist.

I don’t know what gave the army a different idea, but in a republic even they are not above the law. Even two-thirds of the way between here and Benghazi they are subject as any other component of the Maltese state to our constitution and our democratic and humanitarian laws and principles. Even if they were fighting an armed, organised, and capable enemy, their conduct is subject to public scrutiny, to independent press review, and to judicial, Parliamentary, and governmental oversight.

It’s not just they who need reminding of this. There seems to be a growing acceptance that black people are not eligible to the protections of law and, a bit like lunch in Guantanamo, over the horizon the army has a license to do as it pleases and this side of the horizon, they are licensed to ignore questions about what they do there. Even to lie about it if that is what serves their understanding of the interest of national security.

Asking armies to change is as futile as attempting to persuade a free-falling rock to halt its descent. The voiceless people screaming and wailing in despair as they are forced back to Libya are not going to shake the military into an attack of conscience either.

With a complicit government, a silent parliament, and a judiciary of uncertain conviction, the only civilian oversight that is possible is us. As you shut up, can you hear the children scream?