Human Rights at Sea

Due to its diversified identity, shipping constitutes a friendly field for human rights abuses, with human trafficking, illegal migration, slavery and abuse in fishing sector and even the unsafe working conditions in many Southeast Asian ship recycling facilities being among the key areas of concern.

It is estimated that there are circa 40 million persons at sea at any time who have fundamental human rights equal to those who find themselves within the territorial jurisdiction of States.

Until now, those persons have not been adequately protected and there are some persons who are extremely vulnerable because they are beyond the jurisdiction of States.

#5 common human rights abuses in maritime

  • Forced labor and slavery: This occurs when a person is trafficked into a crew position without any contractual agreement to protect his/her rights. For example, for years, the Thai fishing industry, engaging about 71,000 migrant workers on board fishing vessels, has been criticized for systematic human rights abuses, despite several years of highly-publicized efforts.
  • Excessive working hours and low wages: The nature of seafaring as a job unfortunately permits overtime, as seafarers do not ‘leave at the end of the working day’. It is also easy for crews to fall victim of exploitation if they are coming from countries affected by conflict or poverty and have no alternative options. Recently, RMI informed of increased PSC deficiencies caused by cadets’ excessive working hours. Meanwhile, according to ITF, sometimes the so-called ‘flags of convenience’ allow owners to bypass the better minimum wage and working conditions that are common in the countries from where they do business.
  • Bullying or harassment: Bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, is an abuse of human rights and living on a ship offers limited alternative to avoid it. This aspect of abuse is particularly important for women, as it is considered one of the reasons that women hesitate to pursue a shipping career.
  • Abandonment: Abandonment may occur due to financial difficulties of shipowners or even because they can make more money by not paying wages. This can result in seafarers being abandoned in ports far from home without fuel, food and water and without pay for months on end.
  • Migration: It is increasingly clear that a lack of human rights-based migration governance at the global, regional and national levels is leading to the routine violation of migrants’ rights in transit, at international borders, and in the countries they migrate to.

As the ‘migrant crisis’ escalated in the Mediterranean in 2014-2016 companies had to divert about 1,000 merchant ships rescuing more than 50.000 people, according to Elizabeth Mavropoulou, Charity Administrator and Programme Manager at HRAS.

In this respect, the emergence of academic and policy focus on human rights at sea in the maritime environment has come to the forefront of international awareness through the growing ‘human rights at sea’ debate and its developing narrative across all sections of society. A debate that has been developed by the charity and its online platforms since 2014.


The Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea

The principal aim of the Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea is to raise global awareness of the abuse of human rights at sea and to mobilize a concerted international effort to put an end to it.

The end goal of this work is to achieve a finalized soft-law and voluntarily applied version of the Declaration within three to five years that is supported at State level around the world.

The subsequent logical step would be for it to be championed for development into a binding State-level ‘Convention on Human Rights at Sea’ to protect all persons living, working, transiting, or engaged in any other type of activity at sea in territorial and international waters around the globe including seafarers, fishers, migrants and refugees.


The World Human Rights Day

The World Human Rights Day is on 10 December because this is the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a result of the experience of the Second World War.

This year, the Declaration is 71 years old, and it is the most translated document in the world available in more than 500 languages.


European Commissioner on Human Rights

On 22nd November, the Commissioner on Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, published her written observations submitted to the European Court of Human Rights in connection with the case of S.S. and others v. Italy.  The case concerned the interception and rescue operation of a boat in distress in the Mediterranean Sea, carrying around 150 persons who had left Libya, and the alleged human rights violations resulting from this operation.

Importantly, the Commissioner stressed and indeed effectively upheld the founding principle of Human Rights at Sea that ‘human rights apply as sea as they do on land’ in her findings.

Specially, she stated the effective protection and promotion of the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, at sea and on land, requires the full implementation of member states’ obligations under international maritime law, human rights law and refugee law, read consistently with each other.

The consistent cross reading of established international law for the development of wider human rights at sea protections underpins the Geneva Declaration development work and its modus operandi.


Alongside many colleagues and stakeholders we continue to patiently develop the Declaration through a transparent process publicly linked to the online platform, most recently drafting the second version last week in Milan, Italy. This new platform ensures that everyone interested can review and comment on the work being undertaken to ensure that we eventually deliver a truly inclusive soft-law document to the international community,

...CEO, David Hammond, commented.