High seas, low deeds

Slavery, murder, abandonment. Where human rights do not reach.

Burmese worker Ko Htay complained of long working hours and a lack of food on a Thai trawler. Workers report 20-hour shifts; some are given amphetamines to keep them going. Credit: Environmental Justice Foundation

The high seas can be a bit like the old Wild West – a vast lawless zone, where poor seafarers may toil in factory ships or rust-bucket trawlers, trapped in dangerous, filthy and unhealthy conditions, unable to contact or send money back to the families they are meant to be supporting.

Where crime, including rape or murder, may go unpunished on ships sailing under flags of convenience. But also, increasingly, where governments may seek to punish those trying to follow the law of the sea and save the lives of refugees left to drown aboard unseaworthy crafts.

For the past six years, the maritime NGO Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) has been trying to draw attention to this gap in international human rights awareness. In April this year, it published the first Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea.

Read on for a few cases investigated by the charity that shine a light on this murky area.

The abandoned crew of Azraq Moiah.

‘Like slaves’

‘They are treating us like slaves and our basic rights have been denied,’ said Bharath Haridass, one of the 40 crew members stranded in three vessels owned by the same shipping company, Elite Way Marine Services EST, based in Dubai.

‘We are feeling like we have been hijacked on our vessel by our own management,’ was how AB Aniket Deulkar, on the Al Nader, put it.

The seafarers had been trying to leave their ships since their contracts ended, at various stages, in 2017. They were abandoned, some for over 30 months without pay, at the anchorage site of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (UAE). They had scant means of subsistence and no medical assistance. Sanitary conditions were abysmal, with food and water in short supply. Vikash Mishra, Second Engineer on board Tamim Aldar, told HRAS: ‘Last time we received fresh water was 75 days ago. This is not sufficient for even one month and we only have about two litres water a day! Food is also very limited. We have health issues and we are in deep depression.’

Their travel and identification documents were confiscated by the UAE authorities, and communication with their families was virtually impossible. Their ships lacked fuel and lights at night.

HRAS got involved after receiving an urgent call from the captain of one of the ships, Ayyappan Swaminathan on the Azraq Moiah. Earlier this year, with help from the charity, some of the seafarers were repatriated to India and received about half of their overdue wages. Others were left behind. Finally, in June, two Indians and two Eritreans managed to fix the only lifeboat that might make the perilous sea journey to shore and escaped the deteriorating ship after bunkers, oil, potable water and other supplies promised by the company failed to materialize. ‘We were very frightened,’ said Vikash Mishra, ‘but we had no other option to save our lives.’

Missing observer Keith Davis.

The mysterious death of Keith Davis

Marine fishing is worth billions – especially in the Pacific. Illegality and criminality are rife. The job of observers, who are both scientists and regulatory enforcers on-board fishing vessels, can be tricky and dangerous.

US-born Keith Davis was a prominent figure in the observer community. He chaired the Observer Professionalism Working Group and was instrumental in drafting the International Observer Bill of Rights.

On 10 September 2015, he was declared missing while carrying out his duties on board the Victoria No 168, an Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission transhipment vessel. This Chinese-operated, Panama-flagged ship accepts fish from the Taiwan-based Gilontas Ocean Group and delivers to Rocmar Seafood SA in Panama.

Many unanswered questions surround Keith’s disappearance. Why did it take so long – 24 hours – for the US coastguard to be notified, delaying search efforts? Just before he vanished Keith had been monitoring the transhipment of fish, the Victoria coming into contact with another ship, the Chung Kuo No 818. Why was this second vessel and its crew never called to port or properly investigated? Possible murder suspects could have escaped the scene.

Elizabeth Mitchell, of the Association for Professional Observers, described Keith’s disappearance as having sent ‘trepidations throughout the observer community’. Keith’s colleagues continue to fight for improved observer safety. Six other observers have gone missing. Friends say Keith was building up a dossier of serious human rights abuses at sea and was preparing to blow the whistle. In November 2018, a crowdfunding appeal was launched to re-open the investigation into his death.

Captain Carola Rackete, arrested by the Italian authorities, speaks to the media. Credit: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters


‘Punish the rescuers’

In late June 2019 a Dutch-flagged humanitarian rescue ship, Sea-Watch 3, entered the Italian port of Lampedusa without authorization following a two-week stand-off between the charity ship’s captain and Italian authorities. German Captain Carola Rackete was arrested as the boat docked, with 40 migrants remaining on board.

Italy had refused entry to the German rescue ship after it picked up 53 migrants who were floating on an inflatable raft off the Libyan coast on 12 June. After waiting at sea for an invitation from Italy, or another EU state, to accept the ship, Rackete headed to Lampedusa, where she was blocked by Italian government vessels. 

The 31-year-old captain challenged the authority of far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has closed Italian ports to non-government rescue ships. Salvini is effectively interfering with the long-established duty to assist people in distress at sea, as stated in the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, the 1979 Search and Rescue Convention and the 1974 Safety of Life at Sea Convention.

And there are other cases. Last year the Italian authorities said they would not support the activities of the rescue ship Aquarius. Chartered by the NGO SOS Méditerranée, and operated in partnership with the Amsterdam-based branch of Médecins Sans Frontières, the Aquarius had assisted more than 29,000 people in distress at sea since 2016.

The Gibraltar Maritime Administration, under which the vessel was registered, de-flagged the Aquarius. It was then re-registered under a Panamanian flag. But the Panama Maritime Authority followed suit and the Aquarius was once again de-flagged. In both cases the de-flagging followed direct requests from the Italian government.

‘As a collective incident, it… has set a worrying precedent in the area of human rights and maritime law,’ writes David Hammond, founder of HRAS. ‘Meanwhile, hundreds, possibly thousands, of migrants’ lives continue to be at imminent risk in the Central Mediterranean Sea.’