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Is UNCLOS Fit for Protecting Human Rights at Sea?

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.

New Collaboration between Global Fishing Watch and Human Rights at Sea for aligning human rights - Blue Economy - موقع بحري شامل

“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

.United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

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 organization explicitly mandated to raise awareness of human rights abuses at sea. Recently, human rights at sea have made it 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 Haines, Klein, Petrig, Evans, 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.”

The Law of the Sea

The Law - Oceans and Laws of the Sea

The Law of the Sea is a group of international laws that relate to the principles and rules that concern public bodies – especially states – in maritime matters. Including navigation rights, sea mineral rights, and coastal water jurisdiction. It is a branch of the general law, analogous to the law (Emirate of the Sea), which relates to everything related to private maritime communication.

The oceans have long been subjected to the principle of freedom of movement in the seas, as this principle was established in the seventeenth century, essentially limiting the national rights and jurisdiction over the oceans to place them in a narrow belt of the sea surrounding the coasts of that country and the remaining area of ​​the seas was declared as enjoying Free for everyone and does not belong to any country. While this situation prevailed in the twentieth century, by the middle of the twentieth century there was a great force to expand national entitlements over marine resources.

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