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Human Rights at Sea

Volume 813: debated on Tuesday 22 June 2021


Asked by

My Lords, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency enforces the Maritime Labour Convention 2006, and the Work in Fishing Convention 2007, to protect the living and working conditions of seafarers and fishermen on UK-registered ships and fishing vessels anywhere in the world, and on non-UK ships and fishing vessels in UK ports and waters.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, as far as it concerns UK-flagged vessels—but she will understand that the crews of vessels of all nations on the high seas, whether they are fishing vessels, freight vessels or cruise liners, can be uniquely vulnerable to intimidation, abuse and a lack of immediate recourse to any judicial authority. To start to counter this, will the Government support the work to establish the Geneva declaration on human rights at sea?

The noble Lord mentioned that my reply only concerned UK-flagged vessels, but I did also mention vessels at UK ports that are not UK-flagged. The Government are not able to provide formal UK support for the declaration that has been established by the charity of which I believe the noble Lord has been a patron for the last three months, and that has been discussed today. But what I can say is that we are hugely supportive of the existing international frameworks that already exist. The Maritime Labour Convention provides comprehensive rights and protections for the world’s 1.2 million seafarers, and ILO 188, the Work in Fishing Convention, does similar for those who work in fisheries.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Merchant Navy Association. For the benefit of the media outlets which pay particular attention to our House, that is unpaid, as are so many of the duties that so many of us fulfil.

One of the devastating effects of the pandemic has been the impact it has had on tens of thousands of merchant seamen who have been unable to return home after their voyages and have served many months over their maximum limits that were set for safety and welfare. What have the Government done to resolve this problem? Can the Minister explain why a group of British merchant seamen returning to the United Kingdom via Holland with British passports were locked up and berated about Brexit, while those with EU passports were waved through?

I agree with the noble Lord that the impact of Covid on seafarers has been critical in some circumstances. We take the welfare of seafarers extremely seriously. The UK was one of the first countries—if not the first—to recognise and declare seafarers as key workers during the pandemic. Once we had done that, we brought together more than a dozen nations for a ministerial summit in July 2020. We managed to galvanise people into action. This ultimately led to the declaration in the UN General Assembly later in the year to call on all states to take action to protect the welfare of seafarers in the pandemic.

My Lords, in her answer to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, the Minister referred to the Geneva declaration on human rights at sea, with which she is obviously familiar. The current draft says:

“There is a profound need for the concept of ‘Human Rights at Sea’ to be accepted globally. It is primarily States that have responsibility for enforcing human rights standards at sea.”

Does the Minister agree with those two statements?

I can certainly agree that states predominantly have the responsibility for enforcing and making sure that human rights at sea are indeed followed. Of course, the Government share the concern about human rights abuses at sea. We work incredibly hard with our international partners through the UN organisations responsible for those human rights and with the IMO and the ILO—the International Labour Organization—which are able to set international law that applies to seafarers.

My Lords, more than 20,000 refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East have drowned in the last six years, many as a direct result of bombing and missile attacks by countries such as Britain, America and Russia pursuing so-called strategic interests. Does the Minister agree that we have a moral responsibility to look to the welfare and care of innocent civilians trying to escape by sea to a better life?

As the noble Lord will be aware, the Government have good relationships with many countries in the Middle East and we work very closely with them in order to minimise the loss of life at sea.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s move to declare seafarers as key workers. It was an important first step. Will Ministers go even further and consider making the United Kingdom an international hub for the vaccination of seafarers of all nationalities to ensure that global trade, which is important to us and the rest of the world, can continue to proceed?

The noble Baroness makes a really good point. I am aware that visiting seafarers are able to get vaccinated. I will write to her with further details on our vaccination programme for seafarers.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned all the mechanisms in terms of laws and international conventions, but compliance with those requires port state control to stop a ship that is breaking those rules. What is she doing with her colleagues in the FCO and other departments to ensure that the mechanisms for compliance are strengthened globally so that the welfare of seafarers is better protected?

In terms of what the UK is doing, in the first instance, we are showing leadership in the area. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency makes well over 1,000 stops every year in UK ports to check that vessels and the seafarers on them are in compliance with both international and domestic law. Where we find things that are not in compliance, we are able to share that information with other ports around the world. We continue to discuss enforcement with our international partners because it is important that these international laws, which have been agreed, are enforced effectively.

My Lords, I recall as a young student of law, many years ago, the late-19th century case of R v Dudley and Stephens. This involved a shipwreck that caused a number of sailors to take to a lifeboat. As a result of hunger and thirst, they alleged that it was necessary to kill and eat the young cabin boy in order to survive. The common law defence of necessity succeeded at their trial but was reversed on appeal. Does the Minister think that, if the facts were repeated today, the cabin boy’s human rights to life would still trump those of the starving crew?

Oh, my Lords, with modern standards for lifeboats and search and rescue, I would very much hope that such a situation would not arise today. The shipwrecked seafarers would be rescued long before any decisions would need to be taken on who to eat. Modern-day search and rescue services are equipped with an astonishing range of technologies that aid both in alerting the rescue services that there is an issue and in locating persons in distress or potential distress.

Nautilus International has stated that some crews in ships registered under flags of convenience, including Panama, are having their internet access restricted to maybe 25 megabytes a month. Does the Minister agree on the importance of internet access to the welfare of effective and motivated crews, especially when they have been away for a very long time? What action will the Government take to ensure that all ships entering UK ports provide unlimited broadband on their ships all the way through their voyage?

I thank the noble Lord for raising this issue. I will write to him with any further details of conversations that are ongoing where limits on broadband might be detrimental to a seafarer’s mental health.

Can the Minister indicate what joint action can be taken internationally, through the G7 and G20 groups of nations, to eliminate abuses against fishermen—a need that has been recognised by many fish producer organisations, as many of these fishers contribute significantly to our local coastal communities? Many of these people come from eastern Europe and the Philippines and make a major contribution to the catching and processing sectors within the fishing industry.

The UK is fully committed to the welfare of all seafarers and, of course, fishermen. We will continue to work with our international partners to raise standards. We also recognise the difficulty of upholding human rights for those working away from home and beyond the normal authorities ashore. Sometimes, jurisdictional complexities can exist. This is why we welcome things such as the Responsible Fishing Vessel Standard, which is operated by Global Seafood Assurances. This provides commercial incentives to those operating fishing vessels to meet and maintain good standards of safety and employment.