COVID-19 and the failings of global maritime treaties

COVID-19 and the failings of global maritime treaties

The COVID-19 pandemic has stirred chaos in the shipping world the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Thousands of seafarers stranded at sea; cruise ships with infected passengers shooed away from ports; and everywhere, frantic calls to do something about the situation. It all brings to mind a line from William Butler Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

Surely, some international maritime convention or treaty exists that could help restore order amidst the pandemomium, or at least serve as a point of reference for meaningful action. Is there any?

MLC 2006: framework for action

ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, would seem sufficient to deal with the problem of seafarers stranded amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘Regulation 2.5 – Repatriation’ identifies the hierarchy of parties responsible for bringing home the seafarers and bearing the cost of repatriation. The primary responsibility falls on the shipowner, followed by the flag state and the seafarer’s home country.

In fact, MLC 2006 has plenty to say about what needs to be done when seafarers are stranded or become sick. ‘Guideline B2.5.2 – Implementation by Members’ stipulates, amongst other things:

1. Every possible practical assistance should be given to a seafarer stranded in a foreign port pending repatriation and in the event of delay in the repatriation of the seafarer, the competent authority in the foreign port should ensure that the consular or local representative of the flag State and the seafarer’s State of nationality or State of residence, as appropriate, is informed immediately.

And under ‘Guideline B4.1.3 – Medical care ashore’:

3. Suitable measures should be taken to facilitate the treatment of seafarers suffering from disease. In particular, seafarers should be promptly admitted to clinics and hospitals ashore, without difficulty and irrespective of nationality or religious belief, and, whenever possible, arrangements should be made to ensure, when necessary, continuation of treatment to supplement the medical facilities available to them.

Such provisions look fine in the normal course of events. But these are abnormal times. The global coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of borders, to the cancellation of flights and, not less significantly, to an atmosphere of fear and panic.

Interestingly, MLC 2006 mentions twice the term “war-zone” but it makes no reference at all to pandemics, epidemics or plagues. Neither does it use the phrase “force majeure”, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “an unexpected event such as a war, crime, or an earthquake which prevents someone from doing something that is written in a legal agreement”.

(CLICK HERE to download the full text of ILO Maritime Labour Covention, 2006, for smartphones and tablets)

Refugees in a sea of despair

One is tempted to regard crews of stranded cargo ships and passengers of cruise vessels as refugees seeking safety and protection. However, they do not fit the definition of the term under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This international treaty clearly states that it “shall not apply to a person who is recognized by the competent authorities of the country in which he has taken residence as having the rights and obligations which are attached to the possession of the nationality of that country.” (CLICK HERE to download the 1951 Refugee Convention)

One is tempted to regard crews of stranded cargo ships and passengers of cruise vessels as refugees seeking safety and protection.

The International Convention on Maritime Search ahd Rescue, 1979, is of no help either. This treaty defines “rescue” as “an operation to retrieve persons in distress, provide for their initial medical or other needs, and deliver them to a place of safety.” Seafarers and passengers stranded during the COVID-19 pandemic are undoubtedly in distress. However, the Foreward to the SAR Convention states: “As its title implies, this Convention is designed to improve existing arrangements and provide a framework for carrying out search and rescue operations following accidents at sea.” How can a rescue be carried out if there is no accident?

One might imagine that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) contains some provision to deal with a situation like COVID-19. After all, this international agreement is meant to establish order on the world’s seas — something that the current pandemic threatens to erode in a real sense. Alas, there is none such. (CLICK HERE to download the full text of UNCLOS)

Some lessons not learnt

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas (circa 1918)
Photo courtesy of National Museum of Health and Medicine
Creative Commons licence CC BY 2.0

How ironic. The framers of international maritime treaties have not deemed it necessary to consider the possibility of a global pandemic. As even schoolchildren know, COVID-19 is not the first devastating virus to torment mankind. In the early 20th century, there was the Spanish flu which killed millions.

Nor will COVID-19 be the last. According to scientists, more than 1.6 million viruses lurk in the wild which humans have trespassed through farming, deforestation and other commercial activities. Any one of them could break out and cause havoc with the help of what men are so proud and protective of: transportation.

~ Barista Uno

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Thoughts on Marine Café Blog turning eleven

Thoughts on Marine Café Blog turning eleven

Thoughts on Marine Café Blog turning eleven

If endurance were all that mattered, I should pat myself on the back and make whoopee. Marine Café Blog turns eleven this 25th of August. It has lasted despite being totally independent; despite the scarcity of advertising support; and despite the generally cold-hearted response from folks in maritime Manila. However, to withstand the vicissitudes of writing, to simply endure, isn’t enough.

The one thing I am most grateful for is the support and encouragement of the blog’s overseas readers. What writer would not be gladdened by the words of an American shellback, Reid Sprague? He recently commented on Facebook: “Barista Uno’s Marine Café Blog is well worth the click. He offers a cornucopia of maritime culture and his trenchant blog calls a spade a spade in an industry that specializes in double-talk.

Four other seasoned maritime professionals have been very sympathetic to the blog, and I really value their opinions: Captain Richard Teo from Singapore and Australia; Eugene Rutter from Scotland; Duncan Cameron and David Savage, both from the UK; and Captain Ardeshir Yousefi from Canada. Marine Café Blog has readers as well in the field of maritime charity. I should like to mention two in particular: Matthias Ristau and June Mark Yañez from Germany.


Women and the blog


Some of the blog’s most appreciative readers are women from various countries They are not seafarers or maritime professionals, but people who genuinely like my posts about marine art and culture: Maria Alice Ferraz, Elizabeth Marshall, Annie Sanford, Vivian Clavero Gutierrez, Maria Elena Levin, Bonnie K. Aldinger, Maria Giro, Maria Psanis, Betsy Baytos, Eugenie T. Gonzalez, Carla Moore, Susana Cabal, Teresa Gilbert and Dorrie Kimkaran, to name just a few.

Two Filipino women who have been especially supportive are long-time personal friends: Mary Lou Arcelo, chairwoman of John B. Lacson Foundation Maritime University (JBLFMU); and Carmela Huelar, maritime editor of The Manila Times, the country’s oldest newspaper. Mary Lou’s school has been an advertiser for as long as I can remember. On the other hand, the outspoken Carmela does not hesitate to praise even when I write about things that would aggravate others.

Running Marine Café Blog would not be possible, of course, without my beloved daughter Lara. A fine arts graduate and international web developer, she has been patiently doing the layout, design and programming for the blog since 2009. Because of her, I consider myself the luckiest blogger alive.


Inspiration from seafarers


Not suprisingly, my candid posts about certain issues (e.g., crewing agents who steal from seafarers’ remittances) have not endeared me to Manila’s manning community. I am, in fact, a pariah to the local maritime bigwigs, the powerful and the well-heeled. My great consolation is that many who read the blog are Filipino mariners, not a few being active or retired ship officers. Amongst them: Michael B. Cuanzon, June Jun Rahon, Danilo Futalan, Alvin Recto Lim, Range Capuno Faelnar, Benedict Lodriga, Reymarr Zamora Hijara, and James Ibñ Eza Dizon. Bless you, gentlemen.You have inspired me more than you realise.

No writer can live by the precept that one should write for posterity. Writers need a living, breathing audience — even if that audience does not always agree with one’s views. I have been fortunate to have readers worldwide who can appreciate Marine Café Blog and its way of telling it like it is. To all of them goes my lasting gratitude for a meaningful eleven years.

~ Barista Uno

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Five things not to like about some maritime unions

Five things not to like about some maritime unions

In an exploitative and unjust world, the existence of seafarer unions is not only desirable but imperative. Unions are the gadfly of shipping. They keep abusive shipowners in line. They may not eliminate the abuses, but they help reduce their scale and frequency. However, like all institutions, seafarer unions are prone to certain shortcomings and foibles. Listed below are five examples.

Power-Tripping — Contrary to the popular saying, power does not always corrupt. But it does tempt some unions and their leaders to engage in a power trip. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “a self-aggrandizing quest for ever-increasing control over others”.

Sacred Cow Syndrome — Some unions see themselves as sacred cows, as being above criticism. As the champions of seafarers’ rights, they think they are entitled to everyone’s respect. This mindset often manifests itself in arrogance and oversensitivity to any kind of criticism.

Taking and Not Giving — Some seafarer unions collect membership dues without giving back tangible benefits to their members (e.g., housing or hospitalisation benefits). Even if they don’t charge seafarers anything, they earn from the collective barganing agreements with shipowners. Shouldn’t part of the money be plowed back to union members?

Selective Activism — There are some issues affecting the welfare of seafarers that unions, for reasons only they can explain, may shy away from. A prime example is the Filipino maritime flunkey system in which cadets are used by manning agencies and some unions as unpaid office labour and domestic servants.

Slogan Sickness — Sloganeering is endemic in the shipping industry, and the unions are not exempt from the affliction. There is nothing wrong with slogans per se. But when unions unthinkingly mouth the buzzwords and catchphrases coming out of IMO London, one has to wonder: Are they not unwittingly allowing themselves to be used by the maritime establishment?

~ Barista Uno

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Calm seas in art and reflections on life

Calm seas in art and reflections on life

Calm seas in art and reflections on life

They say a vaccine will vanquish the coronavirus. Maybe so, but the war against this invisible enemy will be won, not by the tools of science alone, but by the strength and resilience of the human spirit. The following works of art and accompanying quotes highlight the importance of inner peace in these troubled times. I hope they provide inspiration to those who are feeling distressed and perhaps even hopeless because of the pandemic.

See also: ‘Lighthouse photographs and reflections on life’

Gondolier at Sea by Night, 1843
Ivan Aivazovsky (Russian, 1817 – 1900)
Image courtesy of Wikiart: Visual Art Encyclopedia

‘Speech is of time, silence is of eternity.’ ~ Thomas Carlyle, from Sartor Resartus (1833–1834)

Brace’s Rock, Eastern Point, Gloucester, ca. 1864
Fitz Henry Lane (American, 1804 – 1865)
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

‘Agitation triumphs over the cold.
Stillness triumphs over the heated.
Clarity and stillness bring order to the world.’

~ from The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, English translation by R. L. Wing (1986)

Kalme zee, 1860–1900
Hendrik Willem Mesdag (Dutch, 1831 – 1915)
Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

‘I want to calm down, to rest, to outlive this nonsense.’ ~ Anne Sexton, from a letter to Brother Dennis Farrell (1962)

Marine Study, 1860–1900
Franklin Dullin Briscoe (American, 1844–1903)
Image courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum

‘I take it that what all men are really after is some form or perhaps only some formula of peace.’ ~ Joseph Conrad, from Under Western Eyes (1911)

The Calm Sea, 1869
Gustave Courbet (French, 1819–1877)
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

‘The center of every man’s existence is a dream. Death, disease, insanity, are merely material accidents, like toothache or a twisted ankle. That these brutal forces always besiege and often capture the citadel does not prove that they are the citadel.’ ~ G. K. Chesterton, from Twelve Types (1903)

Night in Shinagawa, 1922
Negoro Raizan (Japanese, 1880–1963)
Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

‘True peace of mind comes from accepting the worst.’ ~ Lin Yutang, from The Importance of Living (1937)

Seascape, undates
Willy Hamacher (German, 1865–1909)
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

‘Sorrow and silence are strong, and patient endurance is godlike.” ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from Evangeline (1847)

Village by the Sea in Brittany, ca. 1880
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916)
Image courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

‘The superior man is satisfied and composed; the mean man is always full of distress.’ ~ Confucius, from The Analects (206 BC–220 AD)

Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Southampton Water, 1872
James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834–1903)
Image courtesy of the Art Institue of Chicago

Take heed of still waters, they quick pass away.’ ~ George Herbert, from Jacula Prudentum (1651)

Full Moon at Kanazawa, Province of Musashi, Edo period (1615–1868)
Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858)
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

‘Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full and grand majesty, and turn his vision from the low objects which surround him. Let him gaze on that brilliant light, set like an eternal lamp to illumine the universe; let the earth appear to him a point in comparison with the vast circle described by the sun; and let him wonder at the fact that this vast circle is itself but a very fine point in comparison with that described by the stars in their revolution round the firmament.’  ~ Blaise Pascal, from Pensées (1669)

10 most common reasons Filipinos want to be seafarers

10 most common reasons Filipinos want to be seafarers

To be a seafarer is no joke. It’s a hard life, and there are many things that make it even more so (see my article, ’35 things that make life more difficult for seafarers’). So why do many young Filipinos want to serve in the Merchant Marine? Listed below are some of the usual reasons. I would have liked to include love for the sea and life at sea. However, I have known only a few Filipinos who were driven by such a passion — sea dogs who are now old or have passed away.

My father, brother or uncle was a seamen. So why not follow in their footsteps?


Working at sea is a challenging career, and to be a ship officer means joining an elite group.


I like how maritime cadets and ship officers look smart in their uniforms.


There are not enough decent-paying jobs on land.


I want to earn in dollars and have a nice house, a beautiful car, and all the comforts in life.


I want to save enough money to start my own business.


I’d like my children to have a college education.


I want to travel and see the world.


The life of a seafarer is filled with adventure and fun which landlubbers do not get to experience.


Seafarers, especially the officers, have an easier time getting women.

~ Barista Uno

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