The truly strong help the weak
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The truly strong help the weak

On Tuesday, Malta very came close to having a national day of shame to go down in the annals of our history.

Human rights are universal, which means they belong to every single person walking this earth

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced that the Government was actively considering returning Somali migrants – who had arrived in Malta in the morning – back to Libya that evening.

One justification for the unacceptable decision to push back migrants to well-documented danger was as worrying as the decision itself: to show we were not “pushovers” in European eyes.

Among other things, Muscat later said the Libyan government had shown “understanding” in their discussions on Tuesday and that children, their parents, pregnant women and those who were physically vulnerable would not have been sent back.

Two fundamental realities were ignored here: the nature of human rights and the situation in Libya.

Human rights are universal, which means they belong to every single person walking this earth, simply by virtue of the fact that s/he is a human being.

Every single man and woman – and not just the vulnerable – of those who risked return on Tuesday had the sacrosanct and legally upheld rights to ask for asylum and not to be dispatched to torture, abuse and possible death.

Because, make no mistake, this is what the migrants face if returned to Libya.

Any comprehension offered by the Libyan government means less than nothing given the current context of lawlessness and political instability in Libya, where many migrants are directly held by powerful militias who operate outside the law.

Thousands of others are detained by the Libyan authorities in centres where deplorable conditions and ill-treatment, sometimes amounting to torture, have been reliably documented.

But this reality did not seem to cut any ice with Muscat.

He preferred to try to score points at the European negotiating table by using the migrants as bargaining chips. He wanted to make Malta look strong.

But by opting for the low moral ground and threatening blatantly illegal measures, he made Malta look very weak indeed.

His redeeming action was his stated willingness to respect the decision of the European Court of Human Rights on the application made by local NGOs to stop the planned return.

All this is not to say our government should not look out for our national interests and to try to reach the best possible deal with the EU on burden sharing.

But our interest can never be won at the expense of someone else’s fundamental rights and life, especially those people we are legally and morally bound to protect.

Ultimately, we are not just Maltese: we are part of a bigger human family, whose relationship is dictated by laws, politics, trade but also by a shared solidarity, where those who are truly strong help the weak, insofar as they are able.

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote: “We are responsible to all for all.”

We need to balance our national interest with our international obligations and with respect for the basic rights of each and every one.

If we fail, we do so to our peril and to our shame.

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