A sea captain is committed to obey to international sea law. After rescuing people, she is bound to coordinate with Rescue Co-ordination Centre (in this case, the Italian Coast Guards Operations Centre) and bring the survivors to the closest place of safety (in this case Lampedusa). Carola Rackete did both.
There has been discussions whether Tunisia can somehow be considered as a place of safety. In case of asylum seekers, most organisations consider that it isn't, notably because Tunisia lacks an administrative procedure to enforce asylum-seeker status.
The meaning of a place of safety becomes broader when those who are rescued are migrants. In this case, other requirements come into play that are tied to the need to enact administrative procedures connected to the asylum-seeker status of those rescued.
Meanwhile, the International Maritime Rescue Federation guidance notes that
3.1 A ‘place of safety’ is defined in the IAMSAR Manual as “a location where rescue operations are considered to terminate; where the survivors' safety of life is no longer threatened and where their basic human needs (such as food, shelter and medical needs) can be met; and, a place from which transportation arrangements can be made for the survivors' next or final destination. A place of safety may be on land, or it may be on board a rescue unit or other suitable vessel or facility at sea that can serve as a place of safety until the survivors are disembarked at their next destination.”
The United Nations and the International Maritime Organisation have built a corpus of international treaties about Search and Rescue Operations, most notably:
International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) , which has been ratified by The Netherlands (Sea Watch 3's flag country), Germany (Rackete's nationality, although it is irrelevant here), Italy (closest place of safety for the survivors), and Tunisia (the other closest country). The recognized government of Lybia (de facto, western Lybia only) also abides to the SAR and defined his SRR (Search and Rescue Region) in 2017.
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), adopted in 1982.
International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), in force since 1980
IMO's guidelines(pdf) for shipmasters (page 6-7) includes
5.1.6. seek to ensure that survivors are not disembaked to a place where their safety would be further jeopardized;
Meanwhile Italian government and Rescue Co-ordination Centre have failed several of their own obligations:
6.3 A ship should not be subject to undue delay, financial burden or other related difficulties after assisting persons at sea; therefore coastal States should relieve the ship as soon as practicable.
6.5. Each RCC should have effective plans and arrangements (...)[to] cover how the RCC should co-ordinate:
.1 a recovery operation;
.2 disembarkation of survivors from a ship;
.3 delivery of survivors to a place of safety;
According to international law, C.Rackete could not expect Italy to close its ports for disembarkation. In particular, having Sea Watch 3 wait for two weeks was clearly illegal, even though Italy (as well as other European countries) had already be pointed at for failing to meet its obligations.
Sailing to Spain, Greece or wherever without a clear order given by the RCC after an agreement between Italy and a safe port where survivors could disembark, would not only have been dangerous for the refugees but also illegal under international sea law.
On Wednesday morning, 3rd of July, an Italian judge ruled that Rackete was
doing her duty saving human lives
and freed her.
She will still face Italian justice though:
Sea-Watch said the judge considered she had acted "in the performance of a duty", to save lives at sea, and had no choice but to come to Italy as Libya and Tunisia could not be considered safe ports.
Rackete is also separately being investigated for assisting with irregular immigration, as is often the case when an NGO ship unloads refugees and migrants in Italy.
The case is due to be heard on July 9,(...)
UE Commission just released its recommendation about Human Rights of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. It is built on the state of law and events until the 24th of May, so it is not a reaction to Sea Watch 3's odyssey or other most recent events. It repeats international sea law, and notably that :
Member states should respect shipmasters’ discretion not to
disembark rescued migrants and refugees in places that are not
safe, and should not penalise, sanction or otherwise take negative
action against shipmasters for decisions to safeguard the lives of
In an interview (full text behind paywall) (summary) for French magazine L'Obs, Carola Rackete claims that she has contacted authorities in France, Malta and Germany when she was stalled outside Italy's territorial waters, but never received authorization to bring the rescued people to Marseille, Valletta nor any of the German ports she asked access to.