Transparency, accountability, awareness and public reporting of human rights abuses at sea

by David Hammond

As a RISE UP For The Ocean priority action to restore ocean life, the issue of greater transparency across the entire global maritime ecosystem is a critical factor in assuring accountability and effective remedy for abuses perpetuated not just towards the natural marine environment, but against those persons who live, work and transit at sea from coastal communities out to distant-water ocean fleets.

Did you know that an estimated 30 million people live, work and move across our world’s seas and oceans every day? And when we speak about ocean conservation and sustainability, it will need humans to undertake those roles and associated activities.

30 million people represents the size of a small-medium sized state whose populace should have the same access to fundamental rights protections as those on land. Often, they do not, as what happens at sea invariably stays at sea without consistent public exposure and awareness through the likes of media, social media and collective advocacy action.

It was, therefore, with much pleasure that we became aware of the priority actions around transparency and public exposure. It firmly fits with the core values, mission and vision of Human Rights at Sea, our small but increasingly growing UK-based, globally focused civil-society NGO established in 2014.

In short, we exist to prevent, detect, and remedy human rights abuses at sea. We raise public awareness of abuses at sea, and support people at sea to understand their rights.

Aiming to act as a trusted global catalyst pivoting around an international collaborative approach, our team has worked hard to establish our online platform and passionately service our founding principle that ‘human rights apply at sea, as they do on land’; itself focused on our vision of ending human rights abuse at sea.

Little did we know then in 2014 that we would have expanded in just eight years to providing independent research, complex investigation, international advisory and objective lobbying support at port, flag, and coastal state, academic, legal, as well as EU and UN agency level. 

But, to coin one of many nautical phrases, it has not all been plain sailing.

Our marine ecosystems are truly the lifeblood of our planet. Collectively, we are better at recognising this in 2022 (increasingly led by empowered younger generations), but the narrative and exposure of environmental and human exploitation has been a hard-fought road trodden by dedicated activists. It has been and continues to be fraught with corporate and state roadblocks invariably led by self-interest and often influenced by more pressing concerns around protecting reputation and shareholder’s dividends, for example.

Nonetheless, today, alongside supporting partners, we are doing our small bit as a tiny cog in a complex international advocacy system focusing on ocean activities and consequent SDGs.

We instigated the drafting and publishing of the Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea, the first soft law instrument of its kind. We are developing a victim-led route in arbitration for effective remedy around abuses against persons at sea. We have triggered and supported primary legislative change in New Zealand for sustainable onshore welfare funding for seafarers’ centres for workers who move over 90% of goods around the world daily. In New Zealand alone, this will affect up to 160,000 seafarers annually. We also triggered a review of LGBTI+ at Sea in 2015 and raised the issue of Gender at Sea the same year well ahead of the maritime industry initiatives. We fight hard for equality at sea for migrants and refugees, and today, we are delighted to see emerging academic courses at Masters and PhD level around the topic of human rights at sea.

Let me put this snapshot of development in perspective. 

If you had typed those four words’ ‘human rights at sea’ in any web search engine in early 2013, then, there was no dedicated civil society platform explicitly tackling the issue with such broad scope. Some leading academic articles and textbooks discussed abuses and the potential expansion of human rights protections at sea, but nothing on the scale that we now see. (Try it in Google and click on ‘News’).

As we write, we are rightly proud to provide a voice and pathways to effective remedies for victims and survivors, and act as a growing catalyst for policy and legislative change, especially for coastal states. 

Nevertheless, we can only do this with collective support and alongside many friends who implicitly understand why we are willingly giving up our valuable heartbeats to achieve real human rights change at sea.

Contact us:

David is a former military seafarer, veteran Royal Marines officer and qualified English barrister. He founded Human Rights at Sea in 2014 after witnessing first-hand the volume and scale of human rights abuses that take place at sea. David has significant practical maritime and legal experience, having served in the North and South Atlantic Oceans, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf and South China Seas. He has also worked in challenging environments teaching and practicing international human rights and international humanitarian law around the world at state, EU, and UN level. 

Twitter: @hratsea


This is a guest blog and may not necessarily represent the views of other RISE UP network members or RISE UP as a whole. It is only through open dialogue and a diversity of ideas that we will arrive at the solutions necessary to restore Ocean health.

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Date Published: 23rd August 2022