Maritime sector and human rights

Anna Triponel

October 28, 2022
Our key takeaway: Much of our global economy relies on the maritime sector: an estimated 90% of global trade is facilitated by ocean transport, employing around 1.6 million commercial seafarers working at sea. Meanwhile, around 38 million people work in fisheries, and many others work at sea in sectors like offshore oil, gas and renewable industries, tourism, and other activities. However, the structure of the sector poses serious human rights risks to workers and to others (e.g., migrants). To date, many of these risks have still not been adequately mapped, addressed, mitigated or remedied by the companies involved in the maritime sector. Human Rights At Sea points to a need for better awareness and implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights within the sector, identifying embedding and remedy as top areas that need more work from companies and other stakeholders. 

Human Rights At Sea (HRAS) published a review of the maritime environment, All at Sea: Is the Global Maritime Sector Effective in Business & Human Rights Implementation? (October 2022). The report is a primer on human rights at sea, with a focus on recent developments:

  • Understanding the maritime environment: HRAS defines the maritime environment as “the setting in which State authorities, government agencies, business enterprises, and individuals work and operate throughout the maritime supply chain. This includes those employed throughout the life cycle of vessels (from the designing, constructing, manufacturing and dismantling of vessels) as well as the vessel’s actual use, including shipping, fishing, brokerage services, shipyards, dry-docks, construction and management of ports, freight-forwarding, insurance, education, seafarer and fisher recruitment, private maritime security companies, as well as related trade and charity associations that have a maritime focus.” The many components and phases of the maritime environment mean that there are many actors and stakeholders who can all influence and be impacted by the sector in different ways. According to HRAS, an “estimated 90 percent of the global trade is transported by sea with an assessed 1.6 million commercial seafarers working at sea.” In addition, 38 million people work in fisheries, and many others work as seafarers within offshore oil, gas and renewable industries, tourism, and other activities.
  • Further work is needed to embed human rights in the maritime industry: The review finds that embedding human rights into business decisions is an important area for improvement, especially in light of an evolving landscape that is reshaping the sector. For example, major supply chain shifts have occurred in the last several years alone due to the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme weather events, armed conflict, migration and more. Per the report, “The human rights and business nexus is ever-present in the maritime environment, given the importance of the maritime sector to global trade and food security. Yet, the UNGPs lacks progress in implementation in this specific sector when compared to work done in other industries such as minerals, garment, agriculture and finance.” Maritime companies and the industries that rely on them should be working to “develop unified policies, drive effective remedy and demonstrate public accountability in the field of business and human rights.”
  • A focus on strengthening the right to remedy: The report focuses on the right to remedy as one key area where further progress is needed. HRAS highlights some of the work already being done to support effective remedy. For example, the Human Rights at Sea Arbitration Tribunal Project is an example of using international arbitration as a means to ensure effective remedy for victims of human rights abuses at sea. The report also refers companies to the Accountability and Remedy Project (ARP) of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, including its ARP III report on non-State-based grievance mechanisms.

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