A Challenging Review of Maritime Industry support for Business and Human Rights

Press Release

4 March 2019

“Over the last seven years there has been little concerted and collaborative effort by the shipping industry to embed the concept, develop unified policies, drive effective remedy and demonstrate public accountability in the field of business and human rights.”

London. UK. Human Rights at Sea today issues a new independent briefing note and report on the state of play for the rigorous and effective incorporation of business and human rights policies and practices throughout the shipping industry, including by States.

Based on seven years of ongoing review and monitoring of how collective and individual efforts within the sector have been developing in response to the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the “Are the 2011 UN Guiding Principles Working Effectively and being Rigorously Applied in the Maritime Industry?” report is stark in its assessment noting a general lack of action and continued collective malaise towards the subject-matter. In short, the answer is “No”.

The report acknowledges individual company efforts to embed the Guiding Principles and ensure betterment and protection of individual’s fundamental rights while working at sea, but the few good examples do not yet represent a majority response.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the issue is not a collective priority and is one which is rarely championed to any depth or degree by industry bodies, while membership associations are only now starting to wake up to the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) focus to evaluate how far advanced companies are with their sustainability actions. ESG, as a concept, now appears to be taking over the traditional corporate social responsibility (CSR) platforms and corporate responses.

Over the last seven years there has been little concerted and collaborative effort by the shipping industry to embed the concept, develop unified policies, drive effective remedy and demonstrate public accountability in the field of business and human rights. This has been exacerbated by too much corporate social responsibility talk in the margins followed by too little action, in particular from leading membership bodies. This has left individual operators who are focused on delivering positive social change to make the necessary internal adjustments without over-arching policy direction, guidance and senior industry support. Meanwhile, civil society continues to show the leadership on the topic, but remains hindered by a lack of industry support for wider human rights protections and therefore, the subject continues to remain stymied reinforcing the collective industry ‘profit over people’ approach.

David Hammond, CEO, Human Rights at Sea, 1 March 2020.


“The Guiding Principles are built around corporate and State roles. While the corporate responsibility to respect human rights has garnered much attention, it is important to recall that the maritime environment poses a very high risk for abuses of human rights at sea, while ignorance of the subject matter compounds the willingness to effectively address transgressions in law and policy.”

“Because many human rights abuses happen out of sight and mind there is far less incentive to investigate allegations, while the complex web of national and international laws and regulations disincentivises drives for better legislation and effective enforcement, especially by those flag States with poor access to constabulary and judicial support, and who have come to rely upon lucrative commercial income from flag registrations, thereby potentially compromising national legal requirements to investigate and prosecute.”

“Compounded by a current lack of collective unity and agreed policy from the top down on the subject matter, business and human rights, and in particular the human rights piece, remains marginalized and not taken seriously in the commercial context. The subject is left to be championed by individuals from a CSR perspective, though invariably it is because their professional role dictates as much, while often compounded in terms of difficulty to gain traction against a background of internal resistance to change.”

“Nonetheless, the Guiding Principles have great potential to improve human rights at sea by expanding responsibility for human rights at sea to commercial maritime companies and not just the default reliance on State intervention. As highlighted above, for the Guiding Principles to be effective, companies must take their human rights requirements seriously and avoid paying lip-service to the issue, but instead transparently and overtly tackle the unique challenges and complexities of the maritime environment when assessing and addressing human rights’ impacts in the supply chain.”

“At the same time, States must recognize that much more needs to be done at a regulatory and enforcement level to protect human rights at sea. For commercial maritime companies to be able to fully respect human rights, States must make sure, at the very minimum, national legal frameworks and supporting legislation is available, or developed where necessary and most importantly, robustly enforced in order to support the widest application of human rights at sea through the resultant deterrent effect.”

Maritime Business and Human Rights Briefing Note – 4 March 2020

Download the latest update to the Human Rights at Sea perspective with evidence and examples on the current state of business and human rights in the maritime industry based on the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.


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