How can national human rights institutions and international human rights mechanisms support the protection of small-scale fishers’ human rights? 

By Senia Febrica & Elaine Webster

How are national and international human rights actors using, and might use in future use, their respective mandates to promote and protect the rights of small-scale fishers, fish workers and their communities? As part of our partnerships for the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture, on 1 – 2 February 2023, we co-organised with the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) a dialogue series composed of two webinars exploring how national human rights institutions (NHRIs) and international human rights mechanisms are addressing human rights issues in small-scale fishing communities. This blogpost highlights key messages arising from these webinars, with a focus on the contributions of One Ocean Hub researchers to the dialogue series.

Experiences and potential of national human rights institutions of addressing small-scale fishers’ human rights

The first webinar (recording can be accessed here) focused on the role of national human rights institutions and was facilitated by Chief Advisor in Human Rights and Development at the DIHR, Carol Rask. NHRI representatives from South Africa, Chile, and the Philippines shared examples of applying their NHRI mandates to address human rights abuses and violations affecting small-scale fishers and indigenous peoples. The South African Commissioner, Jonas Ben Sibanyoni, for example noted that the Human Rights Commission of South Africa can litigate on its own behalf or on behalf of victims of violations of the human rights to small-scale fishers and their communities. Sibanyoni encouraged small-scale fishers who face violations of their rights to access NHRI offices in provinces across South Africa, especially in coastal regions of Kwa Zulu Natal, Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and Northern Cape, so that the NHRI can use its mandate to process complaints received. 

Other key actors also contributed further to the discussion on possible measures for strengthening engagement to advance the protection of small-scale fishers and their communities’ human rights. Harumi Fuentes Furuya, Human Rights Officer, OHCHR, highlighted that the range of small-scale fishers’ rights are interdependent (e.g. gender-specific rights, economic rights, and cultural rights) and all of these are covered in international human rights treaties (e.g. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, as well as, for example, International Labour Organization labour standards). She stressed that states need to translate international standards into action in promoting and protecting small-scale fishers’ human rights.  

Jamshid Gaziyev, Human Rights Officer, the Right to Food Mandate of OHCHR highlighted ‘the triple A approach: awareness, action, and alliance’ in strengthening NHRIs engagement to protect small-scale fishers’ rights. This entails raising awareness of small-scale fishers’ role as rights holders that also make a crucial contribution to ensuring availability and adequacy of food, and strengthening alliances between various stakeholders to improve protection of small-scale fishers’ and their communities’ human rights. 

One Ocean Hub researchers shed new light on key gaps in relation to small-scale fishers’ protection at the national level, compounded by climate change impacts and environmental justice, and access to remedies. Kira Ewin (Durban University of Technology, South Africa) emphasised that the key gap in small-scale fishers’ human rights protection in South Africa lies in the weak interpretation of policies and regulations. This has contributed to the inability of fishers to access their fishing rights, their experience of open exploitation by private businesses that buys rights to fish from small-scale fishers, and forced removal, violence, and loss of life due to heavily policed marine protected areas. Kira Erwin further highlighted the role of fishers as environmental human rights defenders. She noted that oil and gas exploration and pollution have had devastating consequences not only on fishers’ livelihoods, but also on their cultural heritage. Although small-scale fishers’ movements in South Africa are very powerful in acting to protect rights, there is a pressing need to enhance resources and capacity building to enable small-scale fishers to mobilise and take part in decision making that shapes their own future.  Wilmien Wicomb, Attorney of the Legal Resources Centre, South Africa, pointed out that it is also needed to educate law enforcement officers on the ground (rangers, conservation, and municipal officers) on how to communicate and resolve differences with small-scale fishers and their communities. 

Screenshot: National human rights institutions and fisheries webinar

International human rights mechanisms and the protection of the human rights of small-scale fishers) 

The second webinar (recording can be accessed here) focused on protecting the human rights of small-scale fishers through international human rights mechanisms. Representatives from the mechanisms, such as Michael Windfuhr of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, Chair of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls, shared examples of current advice and recommendations to states in relation to the human rights of small-scale fishers and indigenous peoples. Michael Fakhri, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, highlighted the importance of small-scale fishers as stewards of fisheries resources and the marine environment. He recognised the Hub’s research and engagement to gain international recognition for small-scale fishers as environmental human rights defenders. Michael Fakhri further noted that he is preparing a thematic report on the right to food in the context of small-sale fisheries. 

Ms Ana Suarez Dussan of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations also echoed the importance to build synergies and collaboration with different stakeholders to advance recognition and protection of small-scale fishers. One of the concrete examples she provided was a collaboration between the FAO, OHCHR, and the One Ocean Hub in co-organising a High-Level Roundtable, ‘Exploring Challenges, Opportunities and Alliances for the Protection of Small-scale Fishers’ Human Rights’, at the UN World Ocean Day in June 2022 (inlcuding the first ever message delivered by Ms Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on UN World Ocean Day) and producing a joint policy brief, “Applying coherently the human rights-based approach to small-scale fisheries for achieving multiple Sustainable Development Goals”.  

Balortey Gormey, a representative of Hen Mpoano, from Ghana, brought to light an array of problems faced by small-scale fishers, including gender segregation, child trafficking, and sexual violence against women and children and the role of partnerships with regional and international organisations to address human rights violations. The Hub is working with local and national stakeholders in Ghana including Hen Mpoano to identify the challenges confronting women in small-scale fisheries in Ghana and how the international human rights framework can be adapted to enhance women’s inclusion. 

Hub researcher Elaine Webster (University of Strathclyde, UK) highlighted the strong existing baseline of expertise and contributions of international human rights mechanisms in framing small-scale fisheries as a human rights issue in recent decades, in collaboration with civil society. She identified opportunities for further support from the mechanisms in articulating the full range of relevant state duties within human rights law, to enable national actors to place these duties in the context of other national priorities and international commitments, such as via the World Trade Organization or the International Seabed Authority, which engage other international law regimes and duties. Clearly articulating duties within international human rights law could thereby support coherent interpretation and proactive implementation of a suite of international obligations. Other speakers at the event including Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, Michael Fakhri, and Michael Windfuhr agreed that helping to consolidate state duties in this way is a contribution that international mechanisms could indeed make. Elaine Webster also commented that there is a role to be played by the international human rights mechanisms in providing recognition of, and safeguarding, small-scale fisher activists who are contributing as environmental human rights defenders.  

Next steps 

The One Ocean Hub is working together with the Danish Institute for Human Rights, the FAO, the UNOHCHR and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food in co-organising a series of in-person and hybrid events for the closing celebration of the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture on 27 – 31 March 2023 in Rome, Italy. More details about these events will be shared here.  

Photo by: Nessim Stevenson