London. UK. Dr Elizabeth Mavropoulou provides a detailed commentary on one of the contemporary challenges that international law is facing today in protecting, monitoring, and enforcing human rights at sea.

Original Article: EJIL:Talk! Blog of the European Journal of International Law

“One of the most contemporary challenges international law is facing today is protecting, monitoring, and enforcing human rights at sea. A recently launched House of Lords Inquiry in the United Kingdom examining the UNCLOS applicability in the 21st century is asking amongst other questions, how to address the contemporary challenge of monitoring and enforcing human rights law at sea.

It can be said that human rights at sea are a relatively recent narrative in the long history of UNCLOS. Academics only started writing explicitly on the topic ten years ago (indicative scholarship includes that of Treves 2010, Petrig & Geiss 2014 Evans & Galani 2014, and Papanicolopulu 2018) and there is only one civil society organisation explicitly mandated to raise awareness of human rights abuses at sea. Recently, human rights at sea have made it as a distinct topic of maritime and human rights related policy agendas at UN, regional and national levels. The UK House of Lords Inquiry into the future of UNCLOS and its applicability in the 21st century launched by the Lords Select Committee on International Relations and Defence is one such example.

A human rights at sea gap

During the oral evidence stage, it was well acknowledged by the majority of the expert witnesses invited by the Lords that UNCLOS does not explicitly and comprehensively deal with human rights protections at sea (Oral evidence of HainesKleinPetrigEvans and Galani). A dissenting opinion was that of the UK government which remains of the view that UNCLOS does ‘address human rights issues in some discreet areas’, that have also have been further supplemented by instruments such as the 2006 Maritime Labour Convention and the 2007 ILO Work in Fishing Convention as well as IMO Guidelines.

As it has been argued on the blog before, the UK’s position reflects a narrow and somewhat flawed understanding of human rights obligations at sea that still incorrectly equates human rights with minimum labour and welfare standards on board UK-flagged commercial shipping and fishing vessels. This flawed perception has severe consequences for the human rights of people who found themselves at sea around the world and in the UK’s territorial waters and who are not always at sea for employment purposes, (if they have an employment contract in the first place), but also for purposes of recreation, military, or in search of asylum.

Throughout the oral evidence stage, experts have sought to explain to the Committee that the protection of human rights at sea cannot rest on the limited maritime jurisdictional competencies established under UNCLOS. In other words, despite its detailed regulation on maritime delimitation and states’ jurisdictional competencies within the various maritime zones (UNCLOS Part I -VII), as well as general guidance on how to use the oceans’ natural resources in accordance with the principle of the common heritage of mankind (Part XI, Article 136) UNCLOS says little, if anything, on the application of and compliance with human rights at sea.”

Dr Elizabeth Mavropoulou

Dr Elizabeth Mavropoulou is a visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster, and at the Refugee Law Initiative, School of Advanced Studies, University of London. She lectures and researches on matters of international law, with a focus on international human rights and refugee law. Elizabeth is also the Head of Research for the UK based NGO, Human Rights at Sea.