Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) notes that the UK Government’s response to the International Defence and Relations Committee Inquiry into the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982 being ‘Fit for Purpose in the 21st Century’ is weak in respect to human rights protections for people at sea.
he Inquiry looked at numerous issues, including technological developments, maritime security, human element engagement and state enforcement requirements in respect of the existing position of the 1982 Law of the Sea during both live and written evidence submissions in November and December 2021.
It also compared the existing Convention coverage with emerging trends of a 21stCentury global society, itself benefiting from the maritime environment including related use of global supply chains at sea and which included the need for addressing human and labour rights at sea.
The House of Lords specifically highlighted several matters pertaining to addressing human rights at sea including, but not limited to:
- 190. UNCLOS has little to say about human rights. Nonetheless, it is clear that international human rights law applies to people at sea. But there are barriers to the application of human rights at sea in practice. The Government acknowledged the existence of these barriers, but did not say how it intended to address them.
- 191. We ask that in its response to this report, the Government confirms that it considers international human rights law to apply equally at sea as it does on land, and to commit to taking a clear and unequivocal position on this both domestically and internationally.
- 192. We urge the Government to acknowledge that human rights at sea include a wide range of rights, and not just those pertaining to labour conditions, important though these are. In its response to us, we ask that the Government sets out what it considers its obligations to be concerning human rights at sea, including with reference to human trafficking and modern slavery.
- 193. The principle of exclusive flag state jurisdiction and the issue of flags of convenience poses a challenge to the effective monitoring and enforcement of human rights at sea. We reiterate our request for the Government to provide more detail on its review of this issue.
Despite expert recommendations to explicitly look at human rights protections at sea, extensively evidenced in detailed national and international submissions, the UK Government has failed to comprehensively detail human rights issues which affect global supply chains for all goods transported by sea, affect exploited marine resources including flag state impunity, criminality and illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing at sea, affect mixed migration and affect slavery and trafficking at sea
It also added that the response failed to substantially acknowledge and agree as to the need for better protections of individual fundamental rights for all those persons who live, work and transit by sea, other than within UK territorial waters.
Moreover, “the UK Government further failed to support the position that ‘human rights apply at sea, as they do on land’. Instead, it weakly commented that: “[Response to 219] The Government accepts that internationally the applicable jurisdiction for victims of human rights abuses at sea may be difficult to ascertain. There is scope to clarify where victims may bring a complaint or case in the UK,” HRAS stressed.
Taking the above into consideration, HRAS said that:
The UK Government can and must do better on the issue of fundamental protections for all persons at sea if it is to aspire to its proposed thought leadership role and fulfil its own mandate for the 2050 Maritime vision
- Enforcement is a weakness of international law, and is a particular challenge on the high seas. While UNCLOS attempts to address this via the use of flag states, issues related to enforcement capacity and the widespread use of flags of convenience has led to a jurisdictional vacuum on the high seas.
- In light of its gaps and modern challenges, including human rights at sea, rising sea levels, new technologies and the quest for ever more resource, its provisions need updating and supplementing.
- The Government should use its influence and voice within the International Maritime Organization to explore ways it can update and amend the existing law to address concerns, including maritime autonomous vehicles and human rights at sea.
- The UK should reconsider its position that annual meetings of the States Parties to UNCLOS are not an appropriate forum to discuss substantive issues.
- The Government should increase its engagement with states and other actors especially in developing areas of the law of the sea, such as human rights at sea, climate change and new maritime technologies.
- While exclusive flag state jurisdiction is an important principle of the law of the sea, the widespread use of flags of convenience poses a particular challenge for maritime security and the enforcement of laws on the high seas.
- It remains unclear why the UK Government has not signed the 1986 Convention on Conditions for Registration of Ships, and we regret that this has not happened. We ask that the Government includes in its response to this report more detail on the review they have commissioned into this, including its remit and when it will report.
- The advent of maritime autonomous vehicles provides a direct challenge to UNCLOS, which assumes vessels are crewed and cannot be operated remotely. The Government should monitor such developments carefully, and advocate for a clarification of the existing rules if there is an increase in the use of autonomous vehicles for piratical acts.