Taking a human rights-based approach to shipping

By Senia Febrica and Andrea Longo

A recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Marcos Orellana, highlights the relevance of the work of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for human rights (A/HRC/54/25/Add.2), and calls on the IMO to embrace an explicit human rights-based approach. In this blogpost, we summarise key recommendations relevant to marine biodiversity and meaningful participation in ocean governance. 

The IMO is the specialised United Nations body with responsibility for maritime safety, security of shipping and prevention of marine and atmospheric pollution by ships. It is the global standard-setting authority for the safety, security, and environmental performance of international shipping that is universally adopted and implemented. The Hub had already organised a webinar series in 2020 to raise attention to environmental and human rights issues related to the work of IMO. 

Marine pollution, including ocean plastics 

The UN Special Rapporteur underscored that oil and toxic spills from vessels have direct impacts on individuals and communities, typically without adequate compensation, and have direct implications for the effective enjoyment of human rights (para 1). Beyond accidents, operation of vessels can have detrimental effects on humans and the environment due to exposure to toxic chemicals, transfer of invasive species and legal and illegal discharges of wastewaters (para 2). Pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals in the context of shipping threatens a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, security of the person and bodily integrity, food, water and sanitation, and safe and healthy working conditions, as well as the right to a healthy environment (para 41).  

Against this background, the Special Rapporteur recommended that the IMO: 

  • include human rights as an explicit, prominent item on its agenda (para 102.a); 
  • interpret and implement IMO conventions in the light of its human rights obligations and the human rights obligations of States (para 102.b);  
  • consider human rights in all decision-making processes (para 102.c); and  
  • establish or enhance existing regulatory frameworks that tackle the environmental impact of shipping activities (e.g. grey water and bilgewater releases; introduction of invasive alien species from ballast water) (para 102.l&m).  

In this connection, Hub research highlights the need to find new approaches to address challenges facing maritime transport that mirror the connectivity of the ocean. It draws attention to the importance of business responsibility to respect the human rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and everyone’s human right to a healthy environment. 

The UN Special Rapporteur also underscored that the whole cycle of plastics, including transport by shipping, has become a global threat to human rights (para 60). Plastics in the ocean can cause acidification and their component chemicals affect plants and marine animals. This endangers their health, the health of the people who eat them and ecosystems (para 63).  

Indigenous Peoples and others living near coasts often rely on seafood, which is regularly exposed to marine pollution, including the toxic additives that leach from plastics (para 91). The Special Rapporteur recommends that IMO tackle the issue of plastic nurdles and coordinate with UNEP in the negotiations on a plastic pollution treaty (para 102, n). The Hub has been collaborating with UNEP to raise awareness on the interlinkages between plastics pollution and full realisation of human rights, with particular attention to the human right to health and children’s rights

Climate Change 

In the context of climate change, the UN Special Rapporteur underscored that the shipping sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, which increased between 2012 and 2018 by almost 10 per cent, demonstrate the degree the shipping industry damages the environment, and ultimately humans (para 4). To address this, the Special Rapporteur recommends IMO to fully implement the 2023 revised strategy on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from ships (para 102.x) and ensure that new zero greenhouse gas emission fuels do not aggravate the risks and harms of exposure to toxic substances and wastes (para 102.y).  

In this connection, Hub research stressed the importance of consultation and public participation to ensure that strategies for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions do not harm Indigenous Peoples and local communities. As the International Panel on Climate Change noted, ‘maladaptation can be avoided by ‘inclusive, long-term planning and implementation of adaptation actions’ (IPCC_AR6_SYR_SPM, para B4). We expect to further discuss these issues as part of our contributions to the multiple requests for advisory opinions to international tribunals on States’ obligations to address climate change. 

Transparency and participation  

The UN Special Rapporteur also indicated that the human right to information is crucial for protecting and promoting human rights, as it is for ship safety and environmental protection. It is also key to holding organisations, States and private companies accountable for human rights violations and infringements (para 29). He also underscored the importance of meaningful participation in IMO meetings, suggesting that NGOs with consultative status may speak and submit documents at IMO meetings (para 37). However, he notes that obtaining consultative status might be difficult for NGOs due to various requirements in rules and guidelines (para 38). While there is the possibility of observing certain IMO meetings for some stakeholders, such as the media, the default confidential nature of meetings decreases the opportunity for the public to participate meaningfully in the decision-making process (para 101).  

In order to improve transparency and participation, the Special Rapporteur recommended the IMO to implement a strategy for granting the public access to IMO discussions, including by facilitating the admission of observers (para 102.v); and review the new policy on access to information by considering the introduction of clear language in the rules on the exceptions to access (para 102.w).  

Along similar lines, the Hub and its partners have been working on identifying the international human rights standards that can improve meaningful participation of different human rights-holders at various international processes, including the implementation of the high-sea treaty and the International Seabed Authority. With specific regard to the IMO, Hub researchers have called on the IMO to ensure participation of relevant human rights-holders, such as local fishing communities and holders of cultural rights (to ensure consideration of culture, heritage, and spiritual connections, and Indigenous and local knowledge systems) in ocean governance. 

The relevance of the human rights-based approach 

The Hub welcomes the Special Rapporteur’s recommendation that the IMO integrate a human rights-based approach within its policies and programmes, thereby strengthening consideration of human needs in the maritime sector, including the rights of the most vulnerable categories of people (paras 77 et seq) – not only seafarers and workers at ship’s recycling facilities but also coastal communities and women. In this regard, the Hub has recently conducted a Gender and Ocean Governance workshop, where numerous participants have underscored the quasi-absence of substantive norms and standards empowering women employed in the maritime sector or effectively protecting them from harm and threats to their physical and mental well-being and generally contribute to gender equality.  

The adoption of the new UN General Comment on Children’s Human Rights and a Healthy Environment, and the inter-related need to enhance children’s participation in international ocean fora, provide further indications of the relevance of human rights in the work of the IMO. 

Photo: Hector Galarza Pixabay

Related SDGs:

  • Gender equality
  • Decent work and economic growth
  • Life below water
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions