A RECENT study on the protection of human rights in the maritime environment has highlighted the harmful impacts of turning ships away from ports and preventing crews from disembarking.

It emphasised that port states should enforce seafarers’ rights rather than undermining them.

The study was authored by University of Bristol Public International Law senior lecturer Dr Sofia Galani and discussed in an academic review by UK based NGO Human Rights at Sea.

Dr Galani’s research established a connection between rights violations at sea and deficiencies in the implementation of the international laws designed to safeguard those rights.

“The systematic protection of persons at sea remains flawed,” Dr Galani told HRAS.

“This is not because international law does not afford protection to persons at sea, but rather because the many different legal regimes that apply to persons at sea often clash, leaving them in something of a legal vacuum,” she said.

For years, abuses such as seafarer abandonment have gone unnoticed, but the issues brought to light during the global pandemic are now being recognised.

Dr Galani said human rights need to be applied and enforced in the maritime environment. She said these principles should extend to port states that close their borders to seafarers during COVID-19.

Flag states also have an important role to play in safeguarding the rights of seafarers in the context of the pandemic; their duty is to implement social distancing and hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of the virus and to provide adequate medical care on board.

“However, life-saving treatment might not be available on board, and this is why port states have to override port restrictions in order to allow physicians to board a vessel or allow sick seafarers to disembark,” Dr Galani said.

“Port closures, as a COVID-19 precaution, have meant that sick seafarers could not receive life-saving treatment even in emergencies.

“Port restrictions have also meant that vessels could not receive essential supplies.”

Dr Galani told HRAS port states should provide quarantine facilities for seafarers who need to isolate upon disembarkation in order to facilitate crew changes.

She said returning sick crew to sea or preventing them from disembarking is in breach of their obligations; the right to repatriation is guaranteed under the Maritime Labour Convention.

“The protection of this right depends on how successfully flag states enforce it,” she said.

“At first instance, flag states have to oblige shipowners to repatriate seafarers, and if they fail to do so, the competent authorities of the flag state have to make appropriate arrangements.

“The difficulties arise from the operation of the flags of convenience that do not accept responsibility for the costs of repatriation.

“In such cases, it is important to recall that the conditions of abandonment often violate not only labour standards but also the basic human rights of seafarers.

“In cases where seafarers are abandoned within a territorial zone or a port, the coastal state could and should intervene in order to enforce human rights standards.”

Dr Galani said although flag states are responsible for the enforcement of labour standards, port states have the enhanced powers to oversee this enforcement on vessels entering their ports.

“This double layer of protection should translate into enhanced protection of labour standards on board vessels, but port closures have resulted in precisely the opposite,” she said.

“Once port states close their ports, they not only shy away from inspecting labour standards but also prevent flag states from discharging their duties.”

Dr Galani said the refusal to allow seafarers ashore for crew change is inhumane and contrary to the spirit of international legal instruments such as the MLC.

“The assertion of the right of states to close their ports can be considered lawful only when due consideration is given to the rights of persons at sea.”