UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 2005

Jun 23, 2005

Full text of speech given to the
Meeting of States Parties to the United Nations
Convention on the Law of the Sea

United Nations, New York

by Douglas B. Stevenson, Esq.,
Director, SCI’s Center for Seafarers’ Rights

Mr. President,

I am grateful to you and to the Meeting of States Parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for your warm welcome and for giving me the opportunity to speak with you at this year’s meeting. I am speaking on behalf of the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey, which since 1834, has served the world’s merchant mariners irrespective of their race, religion, nationality, gender or beliefs.

Mr. President, since I spoke to the Meeting last year, the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code has come into effect. I am pleased to report that restrictions on merchant mariners access to shore leave and welfare facilities have improved in some ports. Many countries are taking seriously the principles contained in the ISPS and the International Maritime Organization’s MSC Circular 1112 that maritime security is enhanced when merchant mariners’ fundamental rights are protected. IMO Circular 1112 states that facility security plans must contain procedures for facilitating shore leave, crew changes and access for visitors, including representatives of seafarers’ welfare and labor organizations. Yet much work remains in many ports. For example, the ratification of International Labour Organization’s Seafarers Identity Document Convention (ILO-185) by all maritime nations would strengthen maritime security and improve seafarers’ access to shore leave.

Despite the greater post 9/11 maritime security measures, pirates continue to threaten merchant mariners. According to data compiled by the International Maritime Bureau, pirates are becoming increasingly brazen and violent.

Mr. President, we are also concerned by maritime employers’ attempts to erode historic seafarers’ rights. The more serious threats to these rights include for example, provisions in the Consolidated Maritime Labour Convention that the International Labour Conference will consider for adoption next February that greatly reduce seafarers’ rights to medical care. In addition, cruise line industry in the United States is pressing Congress to enact legislation that would essentially shield them from penalties for failing to pay their crews’ wages without sufficient cause.

Unfortunately a trend of escalating seafarers’ exposure to criminal sanctions for non-criminal activity accompanies this erosion of seafarers’ rights. Ships’ crews are increasingly subjected to criminal process by coastal states for pollution incidents, marine casualties and crimes committed by others. When coastal states look for someone to blame when things go wrong in their ports, foreign seafarers become convenient scapegoats.

Mr. President, fishing continues to be one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. It is a seagoing enterprise that accepts high personal casualties with few regulatory safety protections. We were disappointed a week ago when the annual conference of the International Labour Organization rejected a new convention that would have improved safety and working conditions for some 35 million people who work in the global fishing sector.

Mr. President, six months ago the Indian Ocean tsunami showed us the capricious fury of the seas. But, the tsunami also showed us the great depths of human compassion and international cooperation that broke down barriers and divisions between people and their nations to respond to the tsunami’s victims. The United Nations system responded to human needs directly and laudably.

Similarly, the States Parties to the Law of the Sea Convention can respond through UNCLOS to the human needs of the vulnerable men and women who toil in the workplace of the seas. Admiralty law developed as a distinct branch of law principally to protect mariners. The earliest maritime codes contained special protections for mariners. These ancient codes and their principles protecting seafarers are the foundation of the UNCLOS.

Each of us in this Meeting of States Parties to the Law of the Sea Convention can influence whether the UNCLOS will realize its potential as the preeminent source of maritime law. Each of us in this Meeting of States Parties to the Law of the Sea Convention can affect whether the UNCLOS will fulfill its promise to protect the world’s seafarers.

Last year I asked the Meeting of the States Parties to the Law of the Sea Convention to consider placing on its agenda, as a priority item:

The protections for persons employed in the workplace of the sea – and a review of how Member States implement the relevant provisions of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.

I am grateful to the nations that have embraced this suggestion, and I would be very pleased if it were adopted. However, it is not my intention here today to open an extended debate on the meaning of Article 319 or even to ask you to discuss the substance of the issues that I raised.

It is important for us for just a few minutes of our busy lives to turn our attention to the world’s seafarers and to the contributions that they make to our lives and our economies. Think about their suffering. Think about their vulnerabilities. Think about their need for legal protection. Think about how UNCLOS can defend them.

Learn about issues that affect seafarers - and report to your capitals what is happening to seafarers today.

If your country pursues practices potentially contrary to the letter and spirit of UNCLOS, use your political process to acquaint those who can influence your county’s practices to consider their effects on UNCLOS.

If you believe that other countries may be acting in a way contrary to UNCLOS, use your diplomatic skills to acquaint those countries with the objects of the UNCLOS. All of us in this room are experts on the UNCLOS. Let’s use our expertise to make sure that the UNCLOS is a vibrant, relevant source of law.

The UNCLOS provides a structure and framework for order on the chaotic seas. All nations and, their seafarers, will benefit from your efforts to ensure that UNCLOS is fully respected and followed.