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Enhancing human rights at sea

11 May 2023

Rob Coston reports on a recent conference attended by Nautilus, focusing on ways to improve the rights of our members and others at sea

As a seafarer, your rights are underpinned by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Adopted in 1982, it lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world's oceans and seas.

In December, Nautilus International's director of legal services Charles Boyle attended the Wilton Park Human Rights Law at Sea Conference. This was organised as a direct response to the 2021 House of Lords UNCLOS inquiry, which asked whether this instrument is fit for purpose in the 21st century.

The conference set out to explore the difficulties in applying human rights laws at sea, and following the discussion produced a report including several points and recommendations.

Do we need a new treaty?

There was a general understanding at the conference that UNCLOS is not designed to address human rights issues. Its primary focus, after all, is on resolving territorial issues and establishing protections for the marine environment, rather than on people.

This means that it might be preferable to establish a new instrument that clearly lays out the rights of seafarers, fishers and others at sea.

However, delegates expressed concerns about whether there would be the political will to achieve this, and noted also that there is a lack of understanding of the issue, with some states believing that the Maritime Labour Convention (MCL) and International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) already fully address human rights.

The conference mooted the development of a comprehensive new treaty on human rights to cover all people and activities at sea. Given the complexity of this undertaking, the report also suggests that an alternative or interim soft law approach should be explored, such as a code of conduct or guidelines. It has therefore recommended the development of model laws or soft laws instruments to give detailed guidance on how to apply human rights meaningfully in the maritime context.

The conference also noted that there are other ways to improve the position of seafarers – for example, existing human rights due diligence in supply chains (including transportation) can contribute to creating incentives for respect for human rights at sea.

Improving enforcement

As well as issues with the reach of UNCLOS itself, the conference noted that there are ongoing problems with human rights monitoring and enforcement at sea: more comprehensive and reliable data is needed, possibly with the use of emerging technological solutions.

There is also the issue with reflagging of vessels and the ongoing problem of the lack of a 'genuine link' between the vessel and its flag state; in addition, port state jurisdiction is an unreliable way to tackle human rights violations since some of the world's largest ports are in countries not renowned for human rights protections. However, the right to board and inspect a foreign ship should also be expanded, the Conference recommended, so that port state inspections can take place on the grounds of a 'reasonable belief' that human rights violations are taking place.

Champion states sought

Finally, the conference also pointed out that states are needed that will champion and promote the ratification of relevant international instruments, such as the Work in Fishing Convention, 2007, and the Cape Town Agreement, 2012, and introduce bilateral agreements to promote the enforcement of human rights.

The conference recommended the development of model laws to give detailed guidance on how to apply human rights meaningfully in the maritime context

What should I do if my rights are violated?

Many aspects of the MLC overlap with human rights. If you believe you are being denied your MLC rights, you can use your flag state's MLC Onboard Complaints Procedure. For the UK, see MSN 1849.

If the matter is not resolved at the lowest possible level, you can report the matter to the master and external authorities. These authorities include the shipowner, trade union and International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) inspectorate.

You are entitled to complain to the flag state about unresolved MLC noncompliances, or to the port state by using the MLC onshore complaints procedure – see the maritime administration's website for contact and local procedure.

Who should I approach first?

As a Union member, your first port of call is Nautilus if you think your MLC rights have been violated. Unions – including Nautilus – are very well placed to advise, act on behalf of, or assist members to enforce their rights, and this is explicitly recognised in the MLC.

You can also contact your closest ITF inspector. Find the right inspector by downloading the free ITF Seafarers app from the Google Play or Apple Store.


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