SafeSeas attends Wilton Park conference on Human Rights Law at Sea

Wilton Park conference centre

SafeSeas director Professor Tim Edmunds participated in a Wilton Park conference on Human Rights Law at Sea on 5-7 December 2022.

The conference brought together an international group of experts, including academics, policy makers, practitioners, and industry representatives to consider how human rights obligations can best be projected into the maritime domain.

Professor Edmunds addressed five themes in his presentation to the conference:

  • First, he highlighted the radical actor complexity of the maritime domain, comprising different state actors (coastal states, port states, flag states and international states), international and regional organisations, and private and commercial interests. He also noted that the question of human rights at sea functions across three distinct legal regimes: the law of the sea, human rights law, and international labour rights law. This leads to a significant implementation challenge.
  • Second, he discussed the importance of taking politics seriously in implementing change. Strengthening human rights at sea is not just a technical or legal challenge. It requires balancing what might be laudable ambitions against competing interests, motivations, power differentials and priorities in a complex international actor environment. Solutions recognise this issue and work in ways that can, if not always accommodate these tensions, then at least work around or alongside them.
  • Third, he highlighted the importance of capacity and capacity building in implementing human rights at sea. States are not always able to enforce human rights in the maritime domain, whether because of weak maritime law enforcement, unsatisfactory legislative frameworks, insufficient legal expertise, or over-stretched court systems. Addressing these issues requires smart capacity building that can work with local actors and needs over the long term.
  • Fourth, he reflected on threats and opportunities to further international cooperation on this issue. We see the return of geopolitical competition at sea which makes cooperation between states more difficult and even raises the risk of deliberate obstruction by actors opposed to what they see as a liberal international order. However, the oceans are also receiving more international attention than ever before, with interest in maritime issues in the UN Security Council, amongst regional organisations and in multinational operations at sea. This potentially presents a moment of opportunity for action.
  • Finally, he considered what human rights issues might need to be considered in future. Noting the focus of the discussion on the rights of seafarers and migrants, he suggested that more attention also be paid to blue justice concerns and particularly the threat ‘ocean grabbing’ in coastal regions. If poorly implemented, blue economy or environmental protection initiatives risk disempowering and dispossessing local users of the sea; something that is likely to become an increasingly pressing issue for human rights at sea in coming years.