Anna Kanellopoulou
The Criminalisation of Humanitarianism
17 • 01 • 2023

 24 activists have, since 2018, been subjected to a judicial process with charges ranging from espionage to the establishment of a criminal organisation as a consequence of their humanitarian work. This serves as a deterrent and undermines the work of rescuers and NGOs at the Greek borders.

On Tuesday 10 January, the trial of 24 people associated with the NGO Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI) began in Mytilene. Among them are volunteers Sarah Mardini, Seán Binder and Nassos Karakitsos who have been detained by the Greek authorities. The founder of the group, Panos Moraitis, has also been arrested and detained. The organisation and the defendants were involved in both independent search and rescue operations in Greek waters as well as in joint operations with the Greek authorities. According to Human Rights Watch, in 2019 they were charged with facilitating human smuggling, money laundering, the unlicensed use of radios, espionage, and establishing and supporting a criminal organisation.

Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Office have also  called for the charges against Sarah Mardini and Seán Binder to be dropped, with the OHCHR adding that, “Trials like this are deeply concerning because they criminalize life-saving work and set a dangerous precedent. Indeed, there has already been a chilling effect, with human rights defenders and humanitarian organisations forced to halt their human rights work in Greece and other EU countries.”

Where is the problem with the rule of law?

In a state governed by the rule of law, the authorities must respect and enforce the rights established by the Geneva Convention, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Greek Constitution.

The refoulement of persons who attempt to enter the country in order to seek asylum, is illegal. Rescue operations at sea seek to protect the right to life of refugees seeking asylum, which is enshrined in the Greek Constitution, Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

This case sets a precedent for the prosecution of organisations and individuals seeking to rescue people at sea.The charges levelled and the lengthy judicial process have had the effect of discouraging individuals from participating in humanitarian operations and of criminalising humanitarianism.

Anna Kanellopoulou
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