Global NGO criticizes UK government’s weak support for human rights at sea

The UK Government has responded to the House of Lords’ International Defense and Relations Committee Inquiry (1 March 2022) into the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982 being ‘Fit for Purpose in the 21st Century’. 

According to global NGO Human Rights at Sea (HRAS), the government’s response can only be described as weak in respect to human rights protections for people at sea despite extensive and evidenced recommendations to do so by the UK Parliament’s Upper House.

Since then, the Committee continues to challenge the UK Government for its failures to respond to the Inquiry’s recommendations, including explicit coverage of issues pertaining to human rights at sea.

On 19 July, the Committee’s Chair, Baroness Anelay of St Johns, wrote to Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, Minister for Pacific and the Environment, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, requesting further information from the Government on seven areas including flags of convenience and human rights at sea.

The Chair stated: “…we were disappointed with the Government’s response and would like to raise further questions.”

In relation to matters raised in the Inquiry into human rights at sea, the Chair raised several points which had received minimal or nil responses relating to recommendations by the Committee. The points raised reflect the ongoing concerns of HRAS.

On 21 July, HRAS, keeping up the pressure since 16 June when it first commented on the Government’s weak response, said: “The UK House of Lords international Defense and Relations Committee Inquiry was explicit in its recommendations to the UK Government about addressing the issue of fundamental rights and associated protections for the human rights of all persons at sea, both within and external to UK jurisdictional boundaries.

“It is now clear that a unified UK approach is required, and a clear position needs to be taken so “…that the Government confirms, unequivocally, that international human rights law applies equally at sea as on land, beyond just the jurisdiction of the ECHR, and to all categories of seafarers, not just workers.”

“The 31 May 2022 Government response has been found to be sorely lacking in key areas relating to policy responses around the subject of human rights at sea.

“This requires urgent rectification to provide both national and international clarity on the UK’s position and approach if the UK is to be taken seriously as a maritime and human rights leader.”

On 16 June, HRAS first commented: “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.

“The current political positioning towards the eminent recommendations by the UK House of Lords Inquiry deftly ‘kicks-the-can’ down the road and conveniently stalls to avoid tackling the very serious issues of reinforcing the existing rule of law and international rules-based environment at sea explicitly for human rights.

“And despite explicit Parliamentary reference to the Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea, there was silence on the validity of that extensive soft law development work.

“This weak response sends a clear message to those who wish to write down or even write out human rights protections at sea that a failure to address such key matters raised in a national Parliament effectively means that impunity and abuses at sea can at best be conveniently ignored, at worst, condoned.

“It is therefore time to put ‘human rights at sea’ firmly on the UK political agenda to better participate and support the global narrative for protecting the fundamental human rights of all persons reliant on maritime access and ocean resources, including the extensive use of logistical routes crossing the world’s oceans and seas, while concurrently upholding and reinforcing the international rules-based system in the maritime environment.”

UK Government failings

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. 

Turn-backs of migrant boats in The English Channel remains a significant point of policy and legal contention, while reliance on referencing the ILO 188 Work in Fishing Convention is a distracting point noting the limited numbers of state ratifications and global uptake.

Additionally, the response failed to substantially acknowledge and indeed 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.

By way of example, the Inquiry’s report stated: “Witnesses were clear that international human rights law applies to those at sea as well as on land. Professor Klein (Australia) explained that: “there was a point in time where some countries did not consider that their human rights obligations extended out to sea once they were beyond their land territory, but that position has been firmly quashed at this stage.”

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.”

Applicable contextual evidence from Prof. Petrig (Switzerland) stated: ““Not only has the law of the sea been in large part human rights blind, but human rights law has until very recently suffered from serious sea blindness. As a result, human rights treaties that have been refined through many efforts by many actors are mainly for a land context and not for the sea.” This point was seemingly ignored.

Areas of concern

In terms of the ‘Applicability of human rights law at sea’, it was stated:

“We were disappointed with the Government’s responses to paragraphs 190, 191 and 192 of our report. The response acknowledges that while “human rights for workers ashore in the UK are enforced through tribunals/the ECHR…there is scope to clarify where seafarers have access to these.”

“But it gives no detail on how the Government seeks to address these gaps. It also only refers to rights for workers and not wider users of the sea, which we explicitly asked about in our recommendation in paragraph 192.”

“The response also does not confirm, as requested, that the Government considers international human rights law to apply equally at sea as on land. Instead, it refers to the application of the ECHR as applying equally in UK territorial sea as on land. This is a geographically restricted interpretation of human rights at sea and does not explicitly acknowledge the inherent rights of individuals wherever they are located. 

“Further, while the response acknowledges there are jurisdictional complexities that exist at sea, this should not detract from the commitment that human rights law applies regardless of these jurisdictional complexities.”

In terms of ‘Flag states and human rights at sea’, it was stated:

“In response to paragraph 193 of our report, the response again asserts that: “The record of compliance with international conventions by vessels on Open Registers is not significantly worse than that of vessels on other registries.” 

“However, this does not address the issue of whether a flag state is able to enforce international law when a breach occurs, which is a particular concern for human rights. We ask that in response to question 2 above, you include reference to the specific challenges relating to flags of convenience and enforcing human rights at sea.”

In terms of ‘Justice for victims of human rights abuses at sea’ it was stated:

“The response to paragraph 219 of our report was very brief. The response acknowledges that “internationally the applicable jurisdiction for victims of human rights abuses at sea may be difficult to ascertain”, and that there is “scope to clarify where victims may bring a complaint or case in the UK”, but it does not provide this clarification.”

Key for HRAS is the point on ‘A unified approach to human rights at sea’, where it was stated:  

“A reply to paragraph 232 of our report was missing from the response. Paragraph 232 said:

“Piecemeal solutions will not be sufficient. We call on the Government to work with like-minded partners to advance a unified approach to human rights at sea. This will need to draw together practical solutions to challenges including mass migration, forced labor, physical and sexual crimes, and crimes committed by privately contracted armed security personnel, and must lead to the creation of new mechanisms to address the issue.”

Crucially, the Committee stated: “We would like to reiterate this recommendation and ask again whether the Government is planning to work towards a unified approach to human rights at sea.”

Photo credit: iStock/ Iam Anupong

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