Comment: The need for a Human Rights at Sea Declaration with teeth

It has been five years since David Hammond launched the Human Rights at Sea charity to tackle an issue that some initally thought did not exist. Here, he offers his thoughts on the growth of the charity, and those against it who are fueled by “nepotism, professional comfort and a lack of innovative skills” to tackle the issues in an objective way.

The recent publishing of our fifth annual Human Rights at Sea report on the 1st October 2019 was another milestone in being able to publicly disseminate examples of the charity’s work, scope, current reach and increasing influence delivered on a surprisingly small budget, yet tackling one of the largest human rights topics within the maritime sector of recent times, that being the emerging understanding of the significant levels of impunity at sea, assertion of exclusive flag State jurisdiction with a lack of transparency and accountability and the constant reporting of human rights abuses; all of which underpins the clear need for the Human Rights at Sea platform and the related emerging global human rights at sea narrative.

It is virtually impossible to critically argue against our founding principle that ‘human rights apply at sea, as they do on land’.

Those who do arguably expose themselves as neither wishing to protect nor respect fundamental human rights provisions and norms established after the gross abuses and excessive loss of life stemming from the Second World War triggered by the rise of nationalism globally. Hence, the creation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights against which our work is benchmarked.

In six years we have yet to hear public dissent or disagreement with our founding principle and as one senior company executive commented at the recent London International Shipping Week, “to do so in today’s environment would be commercially and professionally fatal”. We would therefore argue that such a change in commercial attitude is one small mark of success for our ongoing advocacy work.

It is also worth repeating that the civil society concept and platform for human rights at sea factually did not exist in 2013 until we introduced the issue.

Then, had you typed those four words into any global web search engine there was no organisation nor platform explicitly exposing or challenging the issues and arguing for increased discussions about the scope and application of human rights in the maritime environment.

We are therefore rightly proud that we started the civil society-led drive to bring the concept of ‘human rights at sea’ to the international stage, the impact and successes of which are highlighted in this latest annual report including the national drive in India to address human rights at sea violations at State level.

It would be remiss not to mention that maritime labour rights were well-worked through and were being dealt with throughout the maritime sector well ahead of the recent developments around human rights at sea, but the now-realised close links between the environment, Law of the Sea, Refugee Law, International Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law and the wider umbrella of fundamental human rights originating from the Universal Declaration had not yet been tied together in any meaningful way.

We are now aiming to do this through the emerging development of the Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea supported by reputable maritime experts, institutions and State-level engagement.

The previous narrow approach to the subject matter was most likely due to an isolated view of the topic as opposed to a comprehensive approach with the inclusion of wider human rights thinking not properly innovated other than through early academic hypothesis and research papers.

Yet, there are still those who will continue to vehemently state that human rights have always been explicitly covered, that the Maritime Labour Convention is a human rights convention and that there is no need for either the concept of, or platform for, human rights at sea.

We disagree. 

Let us be clear and controversially pointed. Such calls tend to originate from those who have been embarrassed by the establishment of the charity as its existence continues to highlight the previous failings to address the topic arguably fuelled by nepotism, professional comfort and a lack of innovative skills to push boundaries and tackle not just the good, but the bad and ugly issues at sea in an independent and objective way.

As the years go by it is noticeable that there is an agricultural attempt from some quarters to erode the facts behind the development of human rights at sea and claim originality when at the time the greatest failure was the fact that in 2014, Human Rights at Sea had to be established at first instance.

This is why our international platform was set up – to fill the gap, to build awareness through research, understanding through education, expansion of the topic through advocacy and lobbying, where applicable.

The last five years have been exhilarating in seeing the speed of development and acceptance of the new narrative, but let us not hide from the fact that it has been a continuous uphill struggle to gain support from the normal social partners pursuing a social justice agenda. Politics, pride and need for control remain key barriers to achieving even greater maritime social welfare development.

As recently highlighted with discussions around competing UK Armed Forces charities and supporting welfare organisations, the ‘one for all and all for one approach’ still does not exist due to market saturation, often barely contained rivalry and competition, a failure to appreciate that no one organisation has the lead and that competition in the maritime space ultimately hurts the very seafarers, fishers, migrants and refugees we have set out to help.

Human Rights at Sea as both a platform and concept arguably should never have been established in the first instance, but today remains present and needed to fill a research, advocacy and education void. Nonetheless, our charitable NGO is well-established and continues to deliver against its charitable objectives despite the challenges it faces and the hurdles placed in its way. 

David Hammond Esq. Barrister (Non-Practising),Founder & Trustee Human Rights at Sea

Share article:

Dedicated topic pages >>

Other news >>


Stay On Top Of The Transformation Of The Shipping And Maritime Sectors With Our Weekly Email Newsletter.