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Piracy: Human Rights and Wrongs

Dr. Sofia Galani, Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol and a Non-Executive Board of Advisors member of Human Rights at Sea gave a short interview on piracy to the Navigate Response, a global crisis communications network specializing in the international shipping, port and offshore industries:

How have attitudes to human rights at sea changed over time regarding piracy?

Piracy and counter-piracy responses have had a tremendous impact on human rights both for those suspected of piracy and for seafarers. Maritime enforcement operations and the subsequent prosecutions and trials alerted the international community to the human rights abuses suspects of piracy might face.

Although it took more time for the human rights of seafarers attacked or kidnapped by pirates to attract attention, the human cost of piracy is now an important part of the human rights at sea debate. The hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants fleeing their countries on board unseaworthy boats and the increasing reports of slavery and abuses of seafarers and fishermen have also played a significant role in our current understanding of human rights at sea …It is high time that human rights at sea were effectively recognized and protected.

Regarding piracy, how are human rights affected between regions?

Different piracy models and bespoke counter-piracy mechanisms might affect human rights at sea differently in the various regions. The regional or international character of counter-piracy operations, for example, have a different impact on the human rights of piracy suspects. While the rights to life, liberty, fair trial and freedom from torture of all piracy suspects can be interfered with, Somalis have been at a more disadvantaged position. Somalis are often transferred to third states, where they have no ties, to be tried and prosecuted. They often have no contact with their families or face inconsistent punishments depending on domestic law.

The human rights of seafarers can be similarly impacted. In all regions prone to piracy, seafarers are exposed to mental and physical abuse by pirates. In Africa, where kidnap for ransom is more common, seafarers might also face prolonged captivity and other forms of ill treatment, whereas injuries and murders are more common in the South China Sea and the Caribbean, where pirates try to seize the vessel or steal valuable cargo.

What are your views on shipowners adopting protective measures, such as armed security?

During the upsurge of piracy in Somalia, the shipping industry was heavily criticized for failing to protect vessels against pirate attacks. However, over the years, shipowners/managers have invested significant amounts of money in vessel protection, including in armed security. Despite their controversial nature, armed security guards have significantly contributed to the protection of vessels against piracy. The high cost of these measures, however, has meant smaller shipping companies have not always been willing, or able, to continue investing in protective measures, leaving seafarers exposed to piracy threats.

Do the media act responsibly when reporting piracy incidents?

Media reporting is helpful, as it raises awareness of piracy and kidnapping. Nevertheless, a few incidents are covered and these are chosen mainly because of their economic or human cost. This sporadic coverage fails to provide a holistic and comprehensive picture of piracy. In addition, inaccurate reporting can further undermine our understanding of piracy and its root causes. The media often present pirates as criminals driven by their greed for money. However, the realities of piracy are much more complex. Only when we understand the root causes of piracy, we will be able to provide long-term solutions.

What are the future challenges with regards to human rights at sea?

Some of the most significant challenges in protecting human rights at sea include the lack of reporting and maritime enforcement. Reporting and investigating human rights abuses while at sea is challenging. As a result, human rights violations often go unreported and unpunished. In addition, while the International Law of the Sea provides a legal basis for stop and search and inspections of vessels for various criminal activities at sea, maritime enforcement operations for human rights abuses on board vessels are not permitted.

To address these gaps, flag states, coastal states and the shipping industry have to work together towards improving the human and labor standards on board vessels as well as making available reporting mechanisms and remedies for victims of human rights violations at sea.

Source: Navigate response