Being the acting people in the field, seafarers play a crucial role within the maritime sector. Whether it is the captain, engineers, technicians, or any other contracted personnel onboard a vessel, all serve to facilitate activities by sea. The importance of these activities is heightened further by the 90% of international trade that is being carried at sea. Yet, despite the idyllic journey across the blue plains, seafarers’ working conditions are hardly as serene. Between the rising environmental disasters and the continuous manmade impediments, seafarers face harsh realities on a daily basis. Most worryingly are the added threats caused by illicit activities that have come to represent serious challenges to these very people. As if terrible weather wasn’t enough, unlawful employment, violations of basic human rights, criminal groups and general malpractices are now part of seafarers’ prevailing concerns. Additionally, the complexity of seafarers’ workplace in itself, operating under various jurisdictions in a plethora of regions, means that much is hinged on adequate and fully implemented legal frameworks if the safeguard of seafarers is to be ensured. Two aspects have thus become quintessential to address in order to guarantee the sustainable safety and security of seafarers. One revolves around the inherent rights of seafarers while the other calls for a change of discourse within the international community.
Seafarers’ Human Rights in Focus
It should be acknowledged from the outset that seafarers’ human rights have been subjected to international regulations for decades, predominantly led by the International Maritime Organization and the International Labour Organization. Yet, while United Nations’ treaties provide general principles as to the humane treatment of seafarers, the remaining conventions and agreements lack specificity when it comes to regulating the rights and welfare of seafarers. This has resulted in much confusion for the seafarers themselves, as well as in countries’ reticence to respect these prerogatives.
In this regard, much of the international regulatory focus revolves more around the broader safety of shipping rather than the specific welfare of seafarers. This is embodied in most international conventions, from the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to the more recent International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, which came into force in 2004. And while some provisions do account for the protection of seafarers and their fair treatment, their inherent safety is seriously being neglected. With particular regard to issues of criminalisation, abandonment or shore leave, numerous cases occur around the world where the ill-treatment of seafarers is ever ongoing.
As such, there is an urgent need to revise the existing legal framework in order to incorporate regulatory norms on seafarers’ rights, welfare and well-being. Henceforth, this will also entail the necessity to push for the implementation of the international legal framework at the domestic level to guarantee its full effectiveness.
International Responsibility to Protect Seafarers
At this point, the discussion is less about the international efforts that are being taken to address maritime crimes and more about acknowledging the need to assert the protection of seafarers. Within the general discussion on maritime security, seafarers are often forgotten to the benefit of other priorities, whether those of the shipping companies, flag states, coastal states or other third parties. Rarely does the discourse revolve around the necessity to protect seafarers, although that is the essence of why efforts are being made in the first place. Shifting this narrative would not only ensure that seafarers remain the prime focal area, but it would also create a homogenised response, where less attention is given to each stakeholder’s interests and hence minimise mistrustful relations.
The epitome of this need for international responsibility to protect seafarers is exemplified by the numerous cases of piracy that occur on the high seas. Piracy, in itself, is defined as a crime taking place on the high seas, where the principle of universal jurisdiction applies. This means that any state can intervene in instances of piracy, and thus subjects the crime of piracy to the international community’s responsibility. Despite this globally accepted definition, the number of kidnapped seafarers is continuously on the rise, and most worryingly, has come to be an immediate threat in various place around the world, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea, located off the Western African coastline.
On recurrently named solution to the safeguard of seafarers is the embarkment of private maritime security companies (PMSCs). Yet, this has become a highly contentious matter between the shipping industry and coastal countries, where the latter deny the presence of PMSCs in their territorial waters, and rather see it as an infringement on their sovereignty. Again, the mistrust between maritime stakeholders is at the epicentre of this conundrum, and one strain of thought is that, if the discourse was centred, from all parties, on the safety and security of seafarers, viable solutions are more likely to be found.
Sum up: The Way Forward
With more than 1.6 million seafarers operating at sea, it is paramount that their wellbeing, working conditions and basic human rights are ensured to the fullest. This needs to be addressed from a holistic approach, where both employers and the general international community take responsibility in guaranteeing the unequivocal safety and security of seafarers, whether on the high seas, in territorial waters or in ports. As such, concrete measures to be taken within the foreseeable future include the following actions:
Acknowledge legal lacunae within international frameworks and revise them to specifically regulate the welfare of seafarers, including their basic human rights;
Implement said international frameworks within domestic legislation;
Shift the international narrative on maritime security to include a paramount focus on the safeguard of seafarers;
Homogenise the international response towards maritime security through the fostering of trustworthy and respectful relations.