Sanctions as a Tool to Protect Human Rights at Sea

Press Release

29 August 2020

London. UK. Human Rights at Sea, in concert with the international law firm HFW LLP, today issues a new Insight Briefing Note concerning the July release by the UK Government of the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020.

These measures follow similar steps taken by the US’s Global Magnitsky Sanctions Regime and are an important step, as they empower the UK Government to place sanctions on those who have violated an individual’s:

• Right to life,

• Right not to be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or

• Right to be free from slavery, not to be held in servitude or required to perform forced or compulsory labour.


Those who are determined to have committed these human rights offences will have their assets in the UK frozen, they will be barred from entering the UK and UK persons will be unable to deal with their assets located outside the UK. This effectively excludes the sanctioned person from the UK’s financial system, which in the maritime space is a considerable penalty due to the UK’s key role in this sector.

As the offences which trigger designation can be committed by an individual (not just by state officials) anywhere in the world, the Regulations have the potential to be used to target persons committing human rights abuses against seafarers at sea.

Whether the Regulations will in fact be used in this way by the UK Government in the event that there is evidence of human rights abuses will in turn depend on the views of UK policy makers regarding human rights violations which take place at sea.

Violations of human rights at sea have been well documented by organisations such as Human Rights at Sea (HRAS). These include transgressions against each of the three fundamental rights included in the Regulations as criteria for designation. For example, the lack of onboard safety and sanitation facilities, confined and restricted living spaces, abusive work conditions, excessive and often unremunerated overtime, illegal deductions of salary at source and violence towards crew are widespread practices in some sectors of the maritime industry.

HRAS and others have highlighted the levying of excessive recruitment and related costs on seafarers as a commonplace practice which can often lead to debt bondage, extortion and threats made to the physical safety of a seafarer’s family by unscrupulous and unregulated money lenders.

Cases of human rights abuses seldom come before the Courts, for obvious reasons, but there are cases, such as Medvedyev and others v. France and Rigopoulos v. Spain where crew members on vessels which were arrested on the high seas have argued that their human rights have been violated because they were not brought promptly before a judge following their initial detention.

Given the focus of the UK regulations on particular rights, human rights abuses at sea could meet the legal threshold for the UK to take action against the perpetrators.

The imposition of sanctions does not, of course, undo the harm wrought by human rights abuses at sea. It would go some way, however, to holding those responsible accountable, encouraging respect for human rights across the industry, and emphasising the UK’s condemnation of human rights whether committed on land or at sea.

The UK’s human rights sanctions are far-reaching, requiring UK persons wherever located to freeze the assets of designated persons. This would have a significant effect on, for example a ship-owner. This would prevent the owner from dealing with the UK financial system, which is likely to be a serious disruption to their business and /or personal life. The UK remains a global financial and maritime centre – it is rare for a ship-owner to have no connection to the UK whether that be through banking, insurance or personal assets.

Shipping is often considered a ‘silent industry’. Its work is unreported and unremarked upon. As a result, human rights abuses are potentially invisible at sea.

The UK’s new human rights sanctions regime may act as a tool to bring such violations into the light and hold offenders to account. For this to be achieved it will be necessary to persuade policy makers of the desirability of using the new tools in the maritime context. As noted, human rights abuses at sea are often serious, and are often perpetrated by those who hold (or purport to hold) significant control and authority over the victims.

Each ship is a de facto island, often beyond the reach of conventional law enforcement, which is an approach rendered all the more difficult due to the complex ownership and employment structures sitting above crew members.


Going forward we anticipate that sanctions may be used as a tool by the UK, and the US, as a means of targeting human rights abuses committed not just by State officials but also by non-state individuals, with the scope to include individuals in the maritime sector.

The new UK Regulations empower the UK Government to impose sanctions on individuals committing violations of seafarers’ fundamental human rights irrespective of their global location. The challenge remains convincing the UK Government and policy makers of the critical importance of using these tools in the maritime context, in the event that there is evidence of human rights abuses.

We remain hopeful that the direction of travel is positive from the perspective of holding maritime human rights abusers to account through sanctions.

Insight Briefing Note: Sanctions as a Tool to Protect Human Rights at Sea. 29 August 2020

Download the latest Insight Briefing Note in co-ordination with HFW LLP covering the issue of the new UK human rights sanctions regime under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020.


For more information please contact: 

Daniel Martin, Partner, HFW LLP:

Isabel Phillips, Associate, HFW LLP:


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