Malta breached the European Convention of Human Rights by coordinating a rescue which effectively pushed back a boatload of migrants to war-torn Libya over the Easter weekend, according to Judge Giovanni Bonello.

The former European Court of Human Rights judge said Malta contravened “in a manifest manner” its international commitments.

The government has faced criticism over its decision to coordinate the return of migrants to Libya by engaging a private fishing vessel to pick them up from a sinking dinghy and hand them over to the Libyan coastguard, which then took them back to migrant camps.

“The virtual pushback of vulnerable and unprotected people to a lawless country like Libya, where they are likely to suffer inhuman and degrading treatment, contravenes in a manifest manner Malta’s international commitments,” he told Times of Malta.

He said: “Unprotected human beings cannot be forced back to a hostile country where there is no rule of human rights law and where respect for basic human rights is notoriously far below acceptable standards.”

The judge explained that there are some well-established principles that govern the matter.

Every state has, in principle, the right to regulate its own sovereign frontiers. Which foreigners enter, or stay, is at the discretion of the receiving state.

This rule is, however, tempered by other, equally relevant, consi­de­­rations. Every state that has ratified the European Convention of Human Rights, as Malta did in 1967 shortly after achieving sovereignty, bound itself to respect and promote the fundamental rights of all human beings.

He explained that Malta’s international obligations under this convention are generally twofold: not to inflict death or inhuman or degrading treatment on any human being, and secondly, to actively do everything in its power to ensure that death or inhuman or degrading treatment is not inflicted by third parties on any human being, whatever his or her race, colour, nationality, place of origin or belief.

In February 2012, the European Court of Human Rights found Italy guilty of gross violations of human rights after a group of migrants were pushed back to Libya by Italian military vessels in an opera­tion that took place outside Italian territorial waters.

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