The maritime industry was among the last industry sectors to awake and start explicitly addressing the high risks of human rights abuses that other sectors had already addressed for years.  It is the past three years that the maritime industry, namely the shipping and fisheries sector, convenes conferences and summits on the topic of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Under the maritime CSR umbrella, the focus has been on the environmental impact of shipping and how the maritime transportation can become more environmentally friendly.  As a result, there has been a lack of explicit engagement with the contemporary human rights risks of seaborne trade that go beyond the traditional seafarers’ and fishers’ welfare matters and include modern slavery and forced labour in the wider supply chains.


Recently, the human rights impact of the maritime industry is noticeable on areas that were traditionally outside of the commercial private sphere such as the search and rescue operations of migrants and refugees at sea conducted by private merchant vessels. Shipping companies had during the escalation of the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ in the Mediterranean in 2014-2016 to divert about 1,000 merchant ships rescuing more than 50.000 people. This unprecedented phenomenon led the International Maritime Organization (IMO), jointly with the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to draft guidance on rescue at sea on principles and practice as applied to refugees and migrants.

Across the spectrum of their operations, businesses in the maritime sector face everyday a wide range of human rights related risks. That said, there has been considerable effort and demonstrable will from both the shipping and the fisheries sectors to comprehensively address human rights related risks through policy commitments, to develop reporting and assurance mechanisms and human rights impact assessments.

In 2011, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights introduced a voluntary reporting and assurance framework, (Protect, Respect, Remedy) under which enterprises can be able to demonstrate under the pillar of the ‘Responsibility to Respect’ human rights, that they “know and show” their commitment to human rights as part of an integrated corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy and policy.

Human Rights at Sea was the first charity to write an Introduction and Commentary of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and their implementation in the maritime environment in 2016, highlighting the human rights related challenges in the maritime environment and calling companies to take action and explicitly address and assess their human rights impact at a board level.

Since 2016, Human Rights at Sea continues to deliver and lead on maritime business and human rights. The Charity has produced a series of freely available and accessible educational videos and accompanying infographics on the UN Guiding Principles and their implementation to the maritime environment. Through its trading subsidiary HRASi, Human Rights at Sea has consulted various corporate and not-for-profit organisations on maritime human rights and has conducted, inter alia, corporate human rights due diligence, corporate human rights audits and corporate daily business reviews, policy drafting and stress testing.  A series of key questions that a business needs to address at a board level regarding the implementation of the Guiding Principles is available to download from the charity’s website.

On the 29th of October, Human Rights at Sea delivered the second International Maritime Human Rights Conference that was dedicated to the topic of business and human rights. The conference brought together the fisheries sector, prominent academics, consultants and the maritime welfare sector to explicitly discuss human rights in the maritime business environment. Despite the absence of representatives from the shipping industry the topic generated considerable interest and a series of questions that is evidence of the need to continue the debate and inform businesses on the benefits integration and implementation of the Guiding Principles has to offer. Business and human rights is already part of the corporate maritime agenda and the more all-encompassing and transparent the human rights reporting and assurance mechanisms become, the more equipped businesses are to fight the evil that is called human right abuse.

By Elizabeth Mavropoulou, Charity Administrator and Programme Manager. Human Rights at Sea

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.

Elizabeth Mavropoulou (LL.B, LL.M and DPhil Candidate) is Charity Administrator and Programme Manager at UK-based, maritime human rights charity, Human Rights at Sea. She is a Greek qualified lawyer (non-practising) and she holds an LLM (with Distinction) on International Law from the University of Westminster. She is currently a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Westminster where she is writing her doctoral thesis on international refugee law. She has been with Human Rights at Sea since the very beginning, in various roles, from legal intern to pro-bono advocate and now she acts as a the Administrator and Programme manager, responsible for the day to day running of the charity and its projects.