NGO Human Rights at Sea Launches Geneva Declaration to Protect All People at Sea

UK-based NGO Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) has on March 1 launched the Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea to uphold the rights of the global seafarer population as well as those working and crossing the world’s oceans and seas.  Importantly too, in the UK House of Lords inquiry into UNCLOS being fit for purpose in the 21st century, its report highlighted the significant work by HRAS and acknowledged the Geneva Declaration.

The aim of the Geneva Declaration is to provide guidance to port, coastal and flag State authorities and all other stakeholders interested in consolidating and expanding human rights protections supporting the single vision to end human rights abuse at sea.

This publication will be reviewed annually by HRAS, while the supporting Annexes may be subject to specific review by external stakeholders, as necessary.  However, the four fundamental principles will remain stable and unchanging.

The Declaration targets human rights abuses stemming from piracy, criminal violence, breaches of maritime labor rights, seafarer abandonment, slavery, trafficking, child labor, and failures in equality and inclusion.

The launch follows three years of research and drafting by a team of experts in public, international, humanitarian, and refugee law. The Declaration applies to seafarers, fishers, workers in offshore oil and gas, and the tourism industry and extends to passengers, scientists, state officials on naval and coast guard vessels, migrants and refugees, and people involved in unlawful activities.

Given the challenging and underregulated nature of the global maritime environment, abuse of human rights at sea is inadequately reported, enforced, or remedied. People continue to disappear, die, and be assaulted at sea. 

Drafting team member Professor Steven Haines said: “We estimate that there are around 30 million men, women and children at sea at any time. All have human rights. Sadly, they are out of sight and out of mind as far as most people are concerned. Far too often, their human rights are breached or wantonly abused. 

“Those responsible for the ill-treatment of vulnerable people at sea far too frequently act with impunity. This Declaration is aimed at protecting the vulnerable and ending the impunity of those doing the abusing.”

HRAS asserts that if these abuses were occurring on land, they would be publicized and addressed. However, in the maritime environment, those with the authority and responsibility to intervene frequently turn a blind eye.

“The Declaration corroborates that human rights abuses occurring at sea are not only wide-ranging but prolific. Unfortunately, parties involved be those flag states, coastal states, or port states, do not always respond appropriately, if indeed they respond at all. The admittedly complicated jurisdictional issues are no reason whatsoever for human rights abuses to be allowed to occur.”, Professor Irini Papanicolopulu said.

As such, the Geneva Declaration of Human Rights at Sea aims to generate global awareness and an international response to human rights violations at sea and ensure effective remedy for victims.

It is structured around the understanding that the protection of human rights at sea rests on four fundamental principles: 

1.         Human rights at sea are universal; they apply at sea, as they do on land.

2.         All persons at sea, without any distinction, are entitled to their human rights.

3.         There are no maritime specific reasons for denying human rights at sea.

4.         All human rights established under both treaty and customary international law must be respected at sea. 

“There are no new obligations contained in the Declaration. No states are being asked to take on new responsibilities. The Declaration brings together the various human rights obligations that all states have and explains how they apply to people at sea. Human rights are universal, and they do not stop at applying at the shoreline.” Professor Anna Petrig said.

The Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea promotes compliance with human rights at sea by providing port states, coastal states, and flag states with guidance to help expand human rights protections and support the vision to end abuse.

“The Declaration contains practical guidance to states on how they can meet the obligations that they have under already existing international human rights law. We have to recognize that not all states have the same capacities and resources, but that does not mean that obligations can be ignored.” Dr Sofia Galani said. 

For example, flag states are obligated to ensure compliance with human rights onboard. The Declaration provides guidance on how this should happen on the high seas and when in territorial waters. 

The overlap of the human rights obligations of flag states, port states, and coastal states are addressed in the Declaration, with cooperation between these parties being encouraged. 

The guidelines in the Declaration note it is good practice for port states to monitor flag states’ compliance with human rights on board their vessels and take necessary steps to ensure an effective remedy for those individuals whose rights may be breached.

The Declaration encourages coastal states to monitor flag states’ compliance with human rights onboard while those vessels are present within internal waters and to ensure its own domestic legislation is extended to its territorial waters to better protect human rights at sea. 

The Declaration has been peer-reviewed by some of the world’s leading law firms: Norton Rose Fulbright, HFW, DLA Piper, and Reed Smith. 

Human Rights at Sea CEO David Hammond said: “We are incredibly grateful to the drafting team and the law firms who have supported the development of the Declaration. This is the first time that the human rights of all people at sea have been codified in one document. 

“For far too long, the sea has been a space where those who want to abuse the human rights of people are allowed to do so freely and without consequence. The Declaration will help to stop that. We look forward to advocating for its adoption by states over the coming months.” 

Members of the drafting team and Human Rights at Sea staff are in Geneva and London March 1 meeting with various political and policy figures to present the Declaration.

Photo credit: Johari 

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