The simple headline is that human rights protections at sea are still overlooked, deliberately avoided, and conveniently brushed aside with impunity across State and non-state entities invariably initiated by exploitative groups and individuals.  

In the interim, 2023 is rapidly shaping to be another challenging, if not deadly, year for human rights defenders alongside the necessary drive for greater access to justice and associated effective remedies.

At the global strategic level, the established focus on upholding and improving fundamental individual human rights is increasingly shifting away from a progressive to an arguably regressive stance with the overt erosion of the established international rules-based order reflected by impunity running throughout many State and non-state activities.  

The rise in global nationalism, expanding regional and State divisions along the lines of economic development and expansionism, dwindling global resources that will impact future generations, the passing of the 8 billion global population mark, environmental catastrophes and increasing fragmentation of the 20th Century approach to the Rule of Law - all provide a dangerous mix of economic, physical, and moral fractures in our societies and humanity more widely. 

Abuses can be variously evidenced with ongoing maritime slavery, human trafficking, loss of life of migrants and refugees, IUU fishing and consequential criminality, mining of waters in the Black Sea, detention of seafarers and sinking of vessels during international armed conflict. Then there are record levels of global abandonment of seafarers, consistent loss of coastal communities’ livelihoods, increasing child labour and forced labour conditions for workers – all being perpetuated at sea on a daily basis.

Despite the advantages of globalisation, this erosion of fundamental human rights is also mirrored in the East-West divisions in ideologies, the rise in hegemony, the reduction in effective application of democratic values, and the regular absence of effective justice for victims and their families.

Further, in terms of the increased linkages between protecting the ocean environment and wider human rights protections, the likes of the recent biodiversity framework protections that have rightly been achieved through necessary COP 15 decisions in Canada still require effective implementation and funding.  

Meantime, what we refer to as more traditional human rights protections are still under sustained attack and more so than ever before since the enactment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. For example, the right to life, liberty and security is specifically under dire threat.

So, let us not hide from the facts. These are dangerous geo-political times for maintaining and assuring hard-earned fundamental human rights on land and at sea, and human rights defenders must redouble their efforts. 


Looking back, 2022 was undoubtedly a bloody year for protecting rights around the globe, both figuratively and factually speaking. The number of examples of egregious abuses across a multitude of states cannot be fully covered in this piece. Still, one must surely understand the scale of the issue just through global news reporting.

Alongside the identified East-West divides, the ongoing inequalities between the developed Global North and the developing Global South continue to highlight localities in which the often-high levels of human rights abuses at sea occur. We need to address this issue much better at UN level, especially in the maritime space. 

Regionally and closer to the European home as set against the backdrop of the Ukraine war with the invasion by Russia of a sovereign state, the English Channel ‘migrant crisis ‘has woken the UK up to the growing global migration movement from which it has been naturally buffered by a stretch of water that historically has protected the UK from the full impact of previous European and wider international geo-political confrontations. 

Human rights at sea

Positively, the issue and narrative around ‘human rights at sea’ is gaining international traction. The concept of a ‘blue turn’, of the ‘blue economy’ and of a growing ‘maritime human rights ecosystem’ is developing with political and policy stakeholders becoming savvier and better educated through academic and civil society activities. 

Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to public exposure to the risks, challenges and often poor conditions of those working at sea, often in excess of lawful periods of contracted employment. In 2020, the UN Secretary General rightly highlighted the humanitarian crisis at sea for seafarers servicing critical global supply chains and thereby put human rights at sea unequivocally on the map. 

Nevertheless, while there are known gaps in human rights protections in law and policy, the real factor in achieving positive change is the sustained and effective enforcement of existing legal instruments to underpin an increased deterrent effect against abusers. 

So, while it is important that we do not try to design on paper the perfect system of legal protections (as it will not be effective without sustained and effective implementation across coastal, port and flag State administrations), we still need to better implement what we have while concurrently developing soft-law, policy and legislative initiatives that have real ‘bite’.

In short, there is much to do and little time, especially when one looks at the juxtaposition between climate and environmental challenges and their impacts on humanity.

Ways Forward 

As hard as it is for civil society to accept, to a large degree, we have to acknowledge the State and commercial realities of a less-than-perfect enforcement environment and instead consider better use of economic and consumer solutions to affect change.

For example, insurers charging more for vessels flagged in poorly performing and ranked flag States, consumers demanding greater transparency and public reporting of human rights protections from third-party audit and certification standards, and sustained awareness campaigns calling out the plethora of issues, however unpalatable they may be.

The cause of human rights abuses at sea is the same as on land. And although States (flag, coastal and port) may not always protect people, the abusers must still be held accountable first and foremost. That means more litigation, greater levels of naming and shaming based on corroborated evidence and transparency for all alleged initiatives linked to maritime human rights protections.

We should therefore increasingly identify champion States and influential entities and harness their political energy and resources. With enough people and engaged States, we can achieve greater levels of justice.

In Conclusion

If COP 15 can seek to protect 30% of global land and maritime environments and associated biodiversity by raising 200 billion Euros by 2030, then we should be able to at least attempt to reduce global human rights abuse by 30%. Or is the underlying direction of travel one that individual human rights have had their time until the next global conflict puts us back on track? If so, humanity should be even more alarmed than it already is.

This New Year and beyond, Human Rights at Sea will work hard alongside our valued partners to keep our small but important cog seamlessly moving to continue to act as a global catalyst for positive policy and legislative change throughout the maritime environment. 

Welcome to 2023. Join us and make a difference.

Contact: David Hammond, CEO, Human Rights at Sea:

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Photo Credit. Hammond. Near Odesa, Ukraine. March 2022.