from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Combating Human Slavery at Sea

January 14, 2014

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Below is a guest post by Isabella Bennett, assistant director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program.

Many viewers who watched 12 Years A Slave take home the Golden Globe for best picture for its unsparing portrayal of slavery in the antebellum South would probably be shocked to learn that twenty million people around the world continue to toil in bonded labor, often under pain of death—and that the United States has the power to reduce this suffering.

But in 2013, U.S. legislators let another year slip by without passing legislation to fight modern-day slavery. As CFR adjunct fellow Mark Lagon points out in his latest op-ed for the Washington Post, many people who fall victim to labor trafficking are forced to work in the illegal fishing industry and there is pending legislation that could address the problem.

On unlicensed—or pirate—vessels, brutal bosses often entice victims with the promise of work, only to force them to work for long hours in horrific conditions, with little to no pay. And disobedience is often fatal. A 2009 United Nations report on the Thai fishing industry underscores the point: Fully 59 percent of workers surveyed witnessed their boat captain kill a fellow worker. Testimonials in a more recent report by the Environmental Justice Foundation suggest this harrowing abuse continues. One interviewee explained:

“After 3 nights we were told that one of us would be executed. We had to draw straws to decide who would be killed.”

Another worker recounted:

“They said I could not do my job very well and I was beaten. We dare not talk back or make any complaints. When our boat went back to shore, I was sold to another boat and I was beaten on that next boat as well.”

In recent years, countries have devoted unprecedented attention to negotiating international norms and agreements to combat human trafficking. Enslavement, for example, has been classified as a crime against humanity in extreme cases. At the national level, as IIGG’s Global Governance Monitor: Crime documents, 128 countries have passed laws outlawing human trafficking and 142 countries have ratified the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) protocol to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, which lays out an agreed definition for human trafficking and commits countries to fighting this scourge.

Yet, enforcement of existing anti-trafficking agreements has floundered. Many countries only recently passed laws to criminalize human trafficking, and some countries have failed to do so entirely. One study found that between 2003 and 2008, 40 percent of countries did not convict a single person for human trafficking—a disturbing finding as modern slavery persists in every nation.

Meanwhile at sea, the prospects are even more dismal for catching and prosecuting rogue fishing boat operators who engage in human trafficking. Lagon attests:

Fishing boats are much less carefully regulated than other ships: Because fishing vessels are not required to have identification numbers, enormous ships are known to change names and flags of registration to stay a step ahead of authorities. Interpol issued two worldwide alerts last year for vessels that had done just that. Fishing vessels are not required to carry satellite transponders, which makes it easy for them to evade surveillance. Moreover, enforcement actions have traditionally been left to the states where the boats are registered, or “flagged,” rather than the “port” states where they bring their cargo to shore, where they would be more likely to be caught doing something illegal.

Beyond facilitating gross human rights violations, current shipping registry arrangements are devastating the marine environment. A surge in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is rapidly depleting many of the world’s fisheries. Ninety percent of the world’s large, predatory fish are already gone, and seventy-five percent of fish species sold in commercial markets are overexploited, fully exploited, or precariously recovering from depletion. These trends threaten a vital food source for one-fifth of the world’s population, in addition to their untold knock-on effects for marine ecosystems.

The United States has an opportunity to lead other countries in fighting IUU fishing, where the bulk of human trafficking occurs, by ratifying the Port States Measures Agreement.

Approved by members of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, including the United States, in 2009, the agreement would allow countries improved oversight of vessels that enter their ports and, importantly, help stop illicitly caught fish from being sold in global markets. By granting countries the authority to inspect foreign fishing vessels suspected of engaging in IUU fishing when they enter a country’s port, the accord makes it more likely that egregious onboard conditions would be discovered. The agreement would also enshrine a commitment to turn away any boats known to have engaged in IUU fishing, preventing them from unloading their illicit cargoes and realizing their ill-gotten gains.

The Obama administration submitted the agreement to the Senate in November 2011 for its advice and consent. Even citizens in conservative Tennessee have urged for the Senate to ratify the Port State Measures Agreement—in part to reduce unfair cooperation for law-abiding U.S. fishing vessels. And yet the treaty has languished on Capitol Hill.

Thus, the bitter reality of maritime slavery continues, even as a legislative remedy exists. Ending this abomination is one goal that all U.S. legislators, regardless of party affiliation, should be able to get behind.