Crime and human rights at sea

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Crime and human rights at sea

Slavery, murder, men left on ships. Where there are no human rights. Vanessa Baird writes.


Burmese worker Ko Htay says he works long hours with not enough food on a Thai fishing ship. Workers say they have 20-hour work shifts; they give some of them amphetamines to keep them going. Credit: Environmental Justice Foundation

The seas can be a bit like the old Wild West – a big place with no laws, where poor men may work in factory ships or old trawler ships, like prisoners in dangerous, dirty, and unhealthy conditions They cannot contact or send money back to the families who they want to support.

There crime, including rape or murder, may not be punished on ships. And more and more, governments may try to punish people who are trying to follow the law of the sea and save the lives of refugees left to drown on dangerous ships.

For the past six years, the maritime NGO Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) has tried to talk about this problem of international human rights. In April 2019 this year, it published the first Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea.


The crew of Azraq Moiah left on the ship.

‘Like slaves’

Bharath Haridass is one of the 40 crew left on three ships from the same shipping company, Elite Way Marine Services EST, from Dubai. He said, ‘They are treating us like slaves and they are denying our basic rights.’

AB Aniket Deulkar, on the Al Nader, said. ‘We are feeling like our own management are treating us like prisoners.’

The men tried to leave their ships after their contracts ended in 2017. They were left, some for over 30 months without pay, at Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (UAE). They had very little food and no medical help. Sanitary conditions were very bad, with very little food and water. Vikash Mishra, Second Engineer on board Tamim Aldar, told HRAS: ‘Last time we received fresh water was 75 days ago. This is not enough for even one month and we only have about two litres water a day! There is also very little food. We have health problems and we are very unhappy.’

The UAE authorities took away their travel and identification papers and it was almost impossible to contact their families. Their ships had no fuel and lights at night.

HRAS was involved after an urgent call from the captain of one of the ships, Ayyappan Swaminathan on the Azraq Moiah. Earlier in 2019, with help from the charity, they took some of the men back to India and they received about half of their pay. They left others behind. Finally, in June, two Indians and two Eritreans fixed a lifeboat to try to make the dangerous sea journey to land and escaped from the ship after the company did not send oil, water, and other supplies they promised. ‘We were very frightened,’ said Vikash Mishra, ‘but we had no other way to save our lives.’


Missing observer Keith Davis.

The death of Keith Davis

Sea fishing is worth billions – especially in the Pacific. There is often crime. The job of observers, who are also scientist on fishing ships, can be difficult and dangerous. Keith Davis from the US was chairman of the Observer Professionalism Working Group and helped to write the International Observer Bill of Rights.

On 10 September 2015, he was missing while on board the Victoria No 168, an Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission ship. This Chinese ship with a Panama flag accepts fish from the Gilontas Ocean Group from Taiwan and delivers it to Rocmar Seafood SA in Panama.

There were many questions with no answers about Keith’s death. Why did it take so long – 24 hours – for someone to tell the US coastguard, which delayed the search? Just before he went missing Keith was checking the shipment of fish, the Victoria coming into contact with another ship, the Chung Kuo No 818. Why did no one call to port or investigate this second ship? It was possible for murder suspects to escape.

Elizabeth Mitchell, of the Association for Professional Observers, said Keith’s disappearance sent fear through the observer community. Keith’s colleagues continue to fight for observer safety. Six other observers went missing. Friends say Keith was writing a report of serious human rights abuses at sea and was preparing to tell the truth about the bad human rights situation. In November 2018, there was a crowdfunding appeal 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 humanitarian rescue ship, Sea-Watch 3, with a Dutch flag, entered the Italian port of Lampedusa without authorization. This was after two weeks of disagreement between the charity ship’s captain and the Italian authorities. They arrested German Captain Carola Rackete as the boat arrived, with 40 migrants on board.

Italy refused entry to the German rescue ship after it picked up 53 migrants who were 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 went to Lampedusa, where Italian government ships blocked it.

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 stopping all help for people at sea, which is a human right as it says in the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea.

And there are other cases. Last year the Italian authorities said they would not support the rescue ship Aquarius from the NGO SOS Méditerranée, with the help of the Amsterdam branch of Médecins Sans Frontières. The Aquarius had helped more than 29,000 people at sea since 2016.

‘There is a very big problem now for human rights and maritime law,’ writes David Hammond, who started HRAS. ‘Hundreds, possibly thousands, of migrants’ are at risk now in the Central Mediterranean Sea.’


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