Countries are not doing enough to address human rights violations happening on commercial ships registered under their flag, researchers have found.
A study conducted by the University of Bristol also found violations remained “largely unaddressed” by the countries where ships were registered and called for the same human rights obligations to apply at sea as on land.
Seafarers are especially vulnerable to human rights and labour violations due to long periods of isolation, it added.
The Flag States and Human Rights report, in collaboration with independent UK charity Human Rights at Sea, explored how human rights were monitored in the UK, the Marshall Islands and Saint Kitts and Nevis. A ship’s flag state, the jurisdiction under which it is registered, has the responsibility of enforcing regulations on that vessel.
The study found a large disparity in the number of human rights treaties ratified by each of these states, which it said was important when analysing each states’ compliance and enforcement of human rights violations at sea. While acknowledging that smaller states may lack resources to monitor, it said that the UK ratified most human rights obligations, yet both the Marshall Islands and Saint Kitts and Nevis only ratified three each.
Monitoring and reporting mechanisms dealing specifically with violations at sea were also lacking or absent, and the study called for public and accessible reporting procedures to ensure that seafarers are not being exploited.
Open registries – countries that allow foreign owners to register ships under their flag – prioritise economic gain over the protection of seafarers’ human rights, said the report. Both the Marshall Islands as well as Saint Kitts and Nevis retained open registries for vessels.
The UK operates under a closed registry, where only those vessels owned by companies registered in the UK can fly under its flag. However, the country still lacked public information or available means for seafarers to submit complaints concerning human rights violations. This could mean there was a lack of political will to accommodate and protect seafarers, the study concluded.
The study could not confirm whether flag state classifications by the Paris and the Tokyo Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) – which rate flag states on various criteria including structural integrity, safety and sometimes working conditions – were a good indication of adherence to human rights obligations, or whether the inspection focused solely on a vessel’s structural and safety standards.
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