UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 2011

Jun 21, 2011


17 JUNE 2011

Douglas B. Stevenson
Director, Center for Seafarers Rights
The Seamen’s Church Institute

Mr. President,

Congratulations on your election to the presidency of the Meeting of States Parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and for giving me the opportunity to speak at this year’s Meeting.

Last year when I spoke at the Meeting, I noted that every nation in the world depends on ocean shipping for its prosperity and that every nation has an interest in protecting the safe and efficient flow of commerce by sea. Each nation’s presence here today is a testament to the strategic importance of the oceans to its security and economy.

Because the well-being of all the world’s citizens relies on shipping, protecting the safe and efficient flow of commerce by sea must be a top priority of all nations. All nations benefit from shipping; therefore all nations must share in the responsibility for maintaining maritime security by countering threats to shipping.

The biggest threat to shipping today is the worldwide crisis of recruiting sufficient numbers of skilled and responsible men and women to operate all of the ships that are required to sustain maritime commerce. All of us – governments, non-governmental organizations, commercial interests and consumers – must work together to make sea-going careers more attractive options for skilled and responsible men and women.

Unfortunately, there are many hardships and negative perceptions about seagoing careers that make them unattractive to many men and women. I will comment on two negative aspects of seafaring that are relevant to the UNCLOS: piracy and abandonment.

Despite the considerable efforts of the international community of nations and the maritime industry to prevent, detect, and suppress piracy; piracy’s effects on seafarers has grown worse over the past year. Last year (2010), 47 merchant vessels were hijacked and 1,090 seafarers were taken hostage by pirates in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. More than 4,000 seafarers were on vessels that were attacked by pirates with firearms. 1,432 seafarers were on vessels boarded by pirates.

So far this year, 21 merchant vessels have been hijacked. More than 108 vessels were attacked, but not hijacked. There are now 21 vessels and about 464 seafarers being held hostage by pirates.

More disturbing than these high numbers of pirate attacks and hijackings, are the reports that pirates off the Coast of Somalia have become much more violent this year. Seafarers who were released from captivity by pirates this year reported that they had been physically and psychologically abused. They have told of seafarers being severely beaten, physically and mentally tortured, and even murdered by pirates. Pirates are now employing hijacked vessels as mother ships to increase their range of operations in the Indian Ocean, using the ship’s crewmembers as human shields. I recently spoke to a ship’s crew who described their stress and anxiety about sailing through the Gulf of Aden and parts of the Indian Ocean because they believed that the Somali pirates would single them out for especially brutal treatment because of their nationality.

Such disturbing reports of pirates’ violence against seafarers have increased stress and anxiety for seafarers and their families. However, the full extent of how seafarers are treated by pirates while in captivity and piracy’s effects on seafarers before, during, or after an attack is not well known.

As I reported to the Meeting last year, the Seamen’s Church Institute is conducting, along with the Disaster Psychiatry Outreach (DPO) at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, a multi-year clinical study exploring the clinical assessment and treatment of seafarers affected by piracy.  The study seeks to identify unique stressors of piracy’s effects on seafarers, along with immediate and ongoing medical evaluation strategies for crewmembers and their families. Study outcomes include plans for clinically assessing seafarers after piracy incidents, assisting families during prolonged piracy episodes, and triaging short- and long-term mental health treatment.

I have brought with me today one of the products of the clinical study, the Seamen’s Church Institute’s updated “Guidelines for Post-Piracy Care for Seafarers.”

The Guidelines were written to provide guidance to the maritime industry, governments, healthcare providers and any others interested in seafarers’ well-being on caring for seafarers’ affected by piracy.

The Guidelines recommend ways to help prepare seafarers for the potentially traumatic experience of transiting zones of piracy, ways to incorporate assessment methods to determine the need for intervention, and ways for follow-up care to be designed and implemented.

As we continue our clinical research on the effects of piracy on seafarers, we will gain new knowledge that could be used to improve the guidelines. Similarly, experience gained from the maritime industry may also indicate improvements to the guidelines. The Seamen’s Church Institute will continue to improve the guidelines based on recommendations from maritime stakeholders and mental healthcare communities worldwide as well as from knowledge gained in its clinical study of the effects of piracy on seafarers. I welcome your comments and recommendations on improving the guidelines.

The guidelines are based on the best scientific knowledge available today as well as input from a broad spectrum of industry, clinical, and research stakeholders. They provide much needed advice on addressing seafarers’ mental health care. We urge you to circulate them among maritime stakeholders to provide the best available guidance on providing for seafarers’ mental health needs in response to piracy.

The UNCLOS requires all states to co-operate to the fullest extent to repress piracy, and it provides the tools for any state to do so. Given the unacceptable human costs of piracy to seafarers, much more needs to be done not only to eradicate piracy but also to care for the seafarers who have been affected by piracy.

I now turn to the problem of abandoned seafarers. The fact that seafarers continue to be abandoned by their insolvent shipowners in ports far from home is a shameful reflection on the maritime industry and nations that depend upon shipping.

While the Meeting was discussing compensation for the UNCLOS Tribunal staff this morning, thanks to WiFi in the UN building, I was trying to assist two seafarers who have been abandoned on their ship far from home without food, water, or fuel. They have not been paid their earned wages in over 5 ½ months, and they have no means to return home. The two seafarers are on a ship flying the flag of a country other than their own nationality. The flag state has delegated its flag administration functions to a private company whose main offices are in a third country. (The private company also provides ship registration services for six other countries.)  The ship is stranded off the coast of a fourth country. Their ship’s owner, who has disappeared, is from a fifth country. The ship’s cargo is owned by citizens of a sixth country, and they are represented by lawyers in yet a seventh country.

Such multinational connections to one merchant ship are not unusual today.

The UNCLOS, in Article 94, obligates flag states to exercise their jurisdiction and control in administrative, technical and social matters over ships flying their flags. Although the flag state is principally responsible for assuring seafarers’ well-being on it ships, all nations also have an interest in making sure that seafarers are not abused and abandoned. In the case I described, there are seven countries with connections to the ship or the seafarers, three of which have clear responsibilities for the two seafarers. No country, neither the flag state, the port state nor the state of the seafarers’ citizenship has done anything to provide relief for these seafarers. These hard working, highly trained seafarers, upon whom our global economies and prosperity depends, have been reduced to beggars in a foreign land through no fault of their own.

Mr. President, the most fundamental function of the Law of the Sea Convention is to provide order and predictability for people in the marine world. The Law of the Sea Convention creates a legal framework that addresses a variety of interests. However, the most important objective of this regime, or any other regime, is to protect the vulnerable and oppressed.

As I stated before, the gravest threat to maritime security is recruiting and retaining enough seafarers to operate the vessels needed to sustain maritime commerce. I urge all member states of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention to use the powers of the Convention to protect seafarers and to make their careers more satisfying. The world’s economies and prosperity depends on it.

Thank you.