Piracy is as piracy does

If a crime was committed, it took the form of attempting to return survivors to a place where they faced a well-founded fear of persecution

The incident in which three migrants among a group 100 men and women, commandeered a motor tanker that was about to take them back to Libya against their will, and forced the crew to change course towards Malta, has been described as an act of ‘piracy’.

The ‘El Hiblu 1’ “hijack” prompted a storm of rhetoric from Italy’s firebrand minister Matteo Salvini, of the far-right Lega party, who accused those involved of being ‘pirates’. As is only to be expected, the same view was taken by many people locally.

Yet it is a highly misleading portrayal of events. Piracy is a crime involving the hijack of vessels for the purposes of plunder. It is by no means a thing of the past: present-day examples include the abduction of ships – cargo, crew and all – to be held to ransom by pirates operating off the Somalian coast of the Gulf of Aden.

But the ‘El Hiblu 1’ scenario is very different. Here, the intention was not to take possession of the vessel for the purposes of extortion or profiteering. Those 100 people were migrants fleeing persecution and torture in Libya. They were rescued in Libyan territorial waters by the ‘El Hiblu 1’, and took the drastic action they took only when they realised – 6 km off the Libyan coast – that the ship was attempting to return them to Libya.

Some of them even jumped overboard in desperation, and had to be rescued a second time. It is an unusual breed of ‘pirate’, who chooses to walk the plank himself.

No, the reality is very different from the picture painted by Salvini and his devotees. If a crime was committed, it took the form of attempting to return survivors to a place where they faced a well-founded fear of persecution. That is, in itself, illegal and a violation of international law.

At the same time, however, the captain and crew of ‘El Hiblu 1’ cannot be blamed for the decision. The reality is that European Union is facilitating this illegal ‘refoulement’, by financing the Libyan coast-guard to intercept boat migrants at sea and to force commercial vessels to return rescued migrants to the Libyan navy. ‘El Hiblu 1’ had no choice but to obey this directive.

Clearly, if this misguided EU policy persists, we can only expect incidents like ‘El Hiblu 1’ to be repeated. As Sea-Watch put it this week: “The horrifying conditions for people in Libya have been widely documented by a wide array of human rights monitors, including UN agencies. Migrants and refugees are known to be systematically subjected to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, kidnapping, extortion, slavery and even murder. It is entirely legitimate for people found in distress at sea to reject being returned to Libya.”

Instead of directing anger and opprobrium at desperate people who took desperate measures to avoid torture, it would be wiser for European leaders to reassess the EU’s own role in the real crimes that are happening in Libya, and that these people are fleeing from.

Instead, Europe is allowing itself to become an accomplice in Libya’s increasingly unacceptable human rights infringements. This cannot go on.

It’s not just about numbers

This week, proposals were submitted to address Malta’s problem of gender inequality in political representation. Much has been made about the proposal to extend Parliament by an additional 12 seats to achieve this aim; as well as the introduction of a quota system.

But while there may be legitimate reasons to question these aspects, they remain small detail in a much bigger picture.

The underlying issue involves a deep-seated cultural mindset that may require generations to change. There are also structural issues – working hours, remuneration, the lack of family-friendly facilities, etc – which make politics even less attractive for women. Making Parliament full-time would not only address conflicts of interest that arise from the fact that MPs hold on to their jobs; but it would also make the career pathway more attractive in general.

The package of legislative proposals also addresses these concerns. Apart from introducing quotas, which are in themselves subject to a 20-year sunset clause, there are also gender mainstreaming and family-friendly measures, including family-friendly working hours for parliamentary sittings, an opt-in full-time backbencher career, more women chairing parliamentary committees, adoption of anti-harassment policies in the House with a formal procedure to investigate complaints, and nursing and childcare rooms.

Additionally, the laws introduce state funding for political parties to recruit more women in a bid to reach a 40% balanced candidates list. However, we should remind ministers that the onus of this law should be on the larger parties who achieve over 6-10% of the national vote, since smaller parties tend to find it harder to recruit candidates from either gender to a party that suffers the bias of Malta’s bipartisan divide.

All in all, however, this is a welcome development for Maltese politics. One can only hope that it will propel a new generation of men and women to the House.