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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