Tackling human rights abuses is critical to sustainable life at sea and on land

Image: Aleksey Malinovski/Unsplash

Priya Vithani
Engagement Lead, Middle East and Africa, World Economic Forum
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  • As we recognize Human Rights Day, we must not forget abuses at sea.
  • The vastness of the ocean makes it too big to police. Because our consumption habits influence activities at sea, the abuses taking place on the ocean are more closely connected to us than we would think.
  • Here are four ways to improve human rights on the ocean, including investing in tech tools to monitor abuses and partnering with and supporting civil society.

Traditionally, Human Rights Day has focused on international human rights abuses that take place on land: modern slavery, cruel and inhuman treatment and unfavourable conditions of employment, to name a few.

Increasingly, however, human rights and environmental justice communities have shed light on the interlinkages between these abuses and those connected to the world’s largest frontier, one that covers 70% of our world’s surface – the ocean.

It is becoming increasingly clear that in order to achieve a just ocean, we must move beyond looking at just the ocean

Priya Vithani

Human rights abuses at sea

The ocean defines our planet. Over half of the oxygen we breathe comes from marine life. It stabilizes our climate, absorbs much of the carbon and heat we produce and provides food, jobs and livelihoods to more than three billion people. It’s also the home of egregious human rights abuses.

As investigative reporter Ian Urbina put it best, the ocean is “Too big a frontier to police, the ocean plays host to rampant criminality and exploitation which includes unimaginable human rights abuses and slavery.” These abuses are closer to home than we think. With 90% of all the products we consume arriving by way of ships, our consumption habits influence activities at sea.

Stories of slavery at sea today highlight appalling human conditions, with workers separated from their families and forced into abysmal conditions, often unable to or prevented from returning home. Today, 40 million people live in modern slavery conditions, and 39% of seafood comes from countries that are at high risk of slavery. It is estimated that of the 152 million children engaged in child labour, the vast majority are in the agricultural sector, including hazardous fishing and aquaculture labor.

The added prevalence of transshipping, or the exchange of goods via intermediate destinations or at sea, makes it particularly difficult to have transparency over which vessel products come from and what practices were used on board. Illicit and illegal activities on the ocean – frequently organized and transnational – also tend to include document fraud, drug, human and arms trafficking, other smuggling and money laundering.

In addition to rampant abuse at sea, the impact of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing adversely affects the economic and social well-being of local fishing communities, especially in countries where coastal communities rely heavily on fishing for food and livelihoods. Overfishing and the exploitation of fishing near these communities renders them particularly vulnerable.

As the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy observes, a healthy ocean can improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people and would help meet all of the Sustainable Development Goals, not just SDG 14 (the “Ocean Goal”). It is becoming increasingly clear that in order to achieve a just ocean, we must move beyond looking at just the ocean

There are clear areas where greater multi-stakeholder cooperation and action to address ocean human rights abuses can move us closer to a healthy and more just ocean, and in turn, contribute to greater global development objectives.

Image: SDG14+ adapted from High Level Panel for Sustainable Ocean Economy Report: Ocean Solutions that Benefit People, Nature and the Economy

1. Fill the governance vacuum.

The lack of governance, enforcement and procedures to follow through on illegal activity at sea has often led to disastrous consequences for innocent communities. Certain companies in the seafood and seafood-supply-chain industries are doing their due diligence to ensure slavery-free seafood and stepping in to fill this vacuum.

In Sweden, Orkla has developed a sustainable, certified and traceable tuna brand that connects a can of tuna back to the captain of the ship from which it came. Implementing greater and higher-level commitments to transparency and traceability in seafood supply chains by businesses, and incentives to do so from the international community and governments, will enable responsible business conduct at sea.

In other areas, international governance has curtailed and challenged poor human rights behavior. In 2015, the European Union placed a ban on fishing imports from Thailand that was only recently lifted after the Thai government took several steps to address its record for abuses, including amending its fisheries legal framework in line with international law.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

2. Adopt and enforce measures to address the root causes of abuses at sea

Internationally accepted laws to prevent modern forms of slavery, especially in international waters where there is no oversight, are greatly needed. A first key step in this process is to address IUU fishing, which is a powerful enabler of slavery and forced labor at sea. This can be done through universal adoption and implementation of the Port State Measures Agreement, the first binding international agreement targeting IUU fishing.

Similarly, greater support of the International Declaration against Transnational Organized Crime in the Global Fishing Industry" (Copenhagen Declaration) could go a long way towards cracking down on crime at sea. While the adoption of these measures is an important first step, their enforcement and follow through at the national and local level is key.

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3. Invest in tech tools to monitor and track abuses at sea

In a frontier so vast, the regulation, monitoring and reporting of human rights abuses is severely limited. A greater dedication to these issues, bolstered by the advent of new technologies that can be reasonably used by governments and civil society in the areas most affected will: 1) better connect consumers to the origins of ocean products and track the activity of boats; and 2) assist in pushing for much-needed transparency and accountability in a frontier where abuses are rampant.

Technology collaborations like those recently announced by Global Fishing Watch and Vulcan Inc. are an important first step and also allow governments to access new technology products and capabilities to combat IUU fishing and achieve more effective ocean governance. If past years have taught us anything, however, it is that technology can have unintended consequences and can be used, repurposed and affects communities differently. Technological advances in radar and fishing, for example, have also enabled an illicit seafood trade that generates an estimated $160 billion in annual sales. Greater oversight and understanding of the use and human rights implications of these technology products are also needed.


How UpLink is helping to find innovations to solve challenges like this

4. Partner with and support civil society tracking abuses at sea.

Of course, no greater demand for human rights can come without consumer and user focus on the connections between human rights abuses and the ocean. Internationally and locally, civil society has mobilized to make these connections more evident and digestible for everyday consumers. Civil society organizations like the Blue Justice Initiative, Minderoo, Environmental Justice Foundation, Freedom United, Human Rights at Sea and others continue to put forth critical advocacy, recommendations and reporting on human rights abuses and injustices at sea, serving as watchdogs of the ocean.

Freedom for civil society organizations to monitor, investigate and advocate against these practices is essential for the attainment of a healthy and just ocean. Frequently, observers exposing abuses at sea are themselves targets of retribution, violence and in some cases disappearances. Despite the risks and challenges, the increase in documentation of what is happening at sea, both in video and written form, has served to paint a clearer picture of the scale of human rights abuses on the open ocean. Support for, and the protection of, such groups must continue if we are to keep abreast of the greatest threats to human rights taking place on the world’s most unregulated frontier.

Launched in 2018 at the Annual Meeting in Davos, Friends of Ocean Action continues to mobilize a multi-stakeholder and informal community to pioneer and scale up solutions for a healthy and just ocean, with an understanding that doing so provides answers to many of the other sustainable development goal challenges, including some of the world’s most egregious human rights abuses.

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