How do we defend human rights on the high seas?


Over 60% of the Earth's surface is beyond the limits of State territory, and with 40-50 million people currently at sea, how do we ensure their fundamental rights are protected?

In theory, human rights apply to the same extent at sea as they do on land, meaning nobody is in a human rights vacuum. The problem is that many at sea find themselves outside the reach of States capable of protecting them from abuses.

Importantly, there are also increasing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers using the seas and oceans as a means of migration, often in unregulated and trafficked circumstances.

The Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea aims to solve these problems by creating a global standard for people's rights whilst at sea. A development initiated by the NGO Human Rights at Sea and authored by Researchers from the NGO, the University of Greenwich, the University of Basel and the University of Milano-Bicocca, the declaration states that:

"No new law is necessary to establish the fundamental principles of human rights at sea. Those fundamental principles already exist, but it is manifestly the case that they are not universally respected, they are not universally complied with, nor are they adequately enforced."

The declaration has now been officially signed by the city of Geneva, the first to commit to the initiative and the global hub for human rights and humanitarian action.

Speaking about the declaration and the commitment by Geneva, Professor Steven Haines, University of Greenwich, one of the authors of the document, said:

"The endorsement of the Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea by the Mayor of Geneva is a major step forward in ensuring safe and secure seas for those who use the seas and oceans for legitimate purposes - and use cannot be legitimate unless International Human Rights standards are complied with and enforced.  

"The process of gaining international support is centred on Geneva, a crucial hub where all States are represented through their missions to the United Nations.

 "I am also delighted that it is a development linked to the Law School in Greenwich, especially appropriate given Greenwich's maritime significance."

The Full Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea can be found here.

The declaration was authored by:

  • Professor Steven Haines, University of Greenwich
  • David Hammond Esq. BSc (Hons) PgDL, Human Rights at Sea
  • Professor Anna Petrig, LL.M. (Harvard), University of Basel
  • Professor Irini Papanicolopulu, University of Milano-Bicocca

Research was undertaken by:

  • Elisabeth Mavropoulou LL.M. (Westminster)
  • Sayedeh Hajar Hejazi LL.M. (Symbiosis) (Remote)