A sustainable maritime industry needs to get human rights onboard

Anti-corruption and climate change has been high on the shipping agenda. However, the human rights challenges for crew, in ship building, ship repair and not least ship-recycling are many and complex. The global maritime industry should build on that momentum and take collective action to increase its human rights performance and get human rights onboard on a par with environmental and governance issues.

January 30 2020

‘Taking the lead’ was the tagline for the Global Maritime Forum’s Annual Summit last year in Singapore. The global maritime industry has, in fact, in recent years been able to tackle some of its most pressing issues and act as a leader. While many of the issues will remain challenging for the foreseeable future, the efforts that have been taken to address corruption and to tackle the industry’s impacts on the environment have been held as successful examples of collective action to address global issues.

The time is ripe to continue to show leadership and take the lead on human rights.

Momentum for human rights

There are many human rights risks throughout the lifecycle of a ship which the industry should pay attention to. The list is long: child labour in the mines that produce the metals needed for shipbuilding; modern slavery in shipyards; poor mental health of seafarers; and severe health and safety concerns in ship recycling. These are just some of the issues that illustrate the need for individual and collection action on human rights in shipping.

Some organisations have already started this work. One such example is the Norwegian ‘Mind the Gap Tour’. In 2018, the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights, the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) convened an exploratory human rights roundtable in Norway with key stakeholders from the Norwegian maritime industry. At the roundtable, it was agreed that there was a need for a deeper understanding of the importance and relevance of human rights within the broader sustainability/SDG agenda by the maritime industry. This kicked-off the ‘Mind the Gap Tour’ which took place throughout 2019.

The tour itself included five seminars in different locations in Norway with a broad range of stakeholders from the maritime industry. The seminars confirmed the importance for industry actors to gain a better understanding of the human rights risks that exist throughout the lifecycle of a ship – from shipyard to scrapyard – as well as to have the tools to manage those risks. The publication “the human rights lifecycle of a ship” provides an overview and key human rights considerations and recommended follow-up actions and resources.

The Mind the Gap Tour concluded in 2019 and one of the lessons learned is that while there is still a need for further understanding of human rights, a lot of work has already been done. Further Responsible Shipping roundtables in 2019 in London and Singapore emphasised this further that the industry needs to be tackling human rights risks and responsibilities with the same urgency as environmental challenges.

Another example of leadership on human rights within the industry is the human rights guidance published by Danish Shipping in 2019, which both provides guidance for how shipping companies should manage human rights as well as what the primary human rights risk areas are for Danish Shipping members.

The mentioned efforts show that there is a momentum within the industry that can be built on – and we call on industry leaders to set an ambitious pace.

The maritime industry should be fit for future

During the 2019 Global Maritime Forum Annual Summit many of the most pressing issues facing the maritime industry were discussed. For next year’s summit we believe that it is the perfect time to put human rights on the agenda, in order to discuss solutions to global human rights challenges facing the industry. Discussing a way forward at the 2020 summit, based on the existing and complementary initiatives and resources, will allow the global maritime industry to have a common understanding of how industry actors could best manage their human rights risks. Considering the increased expectations on the private sector in general, both by consumers, investors and the public at large, this is also a question of the maritime industry being fit for future.

A way forward

There are of course many ways to ensure that the bar is raised when it comes to human rights and that the global maritime industry takes its responsibility to respect human rights throughout the lifecycle of a ship from shipyard to scrapyard.

One way of seeing to it that the maritime industry does this is to follow the blueprint of the Poseidon Principles. If lenders begin to ask tough questions around the maritime industry’s human rights impacts, it could drive the necessary change that some actors within the global maritime industry have already begun. Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) performance is used today to leverage finance to drive change on all of the issues mentioned above (anti-corruption, environment and human rights) but the ‘S’ in ESG has not received sufficient attention. Developing human rights relevant criteria for the maritime industry to track its performance in relation to social issues (the ‘S’) as well as human rights-related governance issues (the ‘G’) would have immediate impacts on industry actions and resource allocation.

If clear human rights criteria in relation to ESG performance were to be developed, it could be used by industry actors, customers as well as investors, to ensure a level playing-field for actors within the global maritime industry. Companies that show responsible business conduct would be acknowledged for their work, since they would more easily gain access to finance. It would also ensure that those who are not living up to the existing international standards on human rights would have to improve if they want to secure funding opportunities, thus raising ‘the floor’.

One of the conclusions after the 2019 Global Maritime Forum annual summit was that it will require collaboration and bold leadership to meet new societal demands. We couldn’t agree more. The global maritime industry is well placed to again take the lead and work towards that all actors understand their responsibilities as well as have the tools to fulfil that responsibility. The Global Maritime Forum could play an important role in this by placing the issue of human rights at the centre of the debate in 2020.

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