The berth of a nation

Davy Jones urges for the oceans to be granted a seat at the United Nations to solve many of today’s shipping riddles including the crew change conundrum.

Today, hundreds of thousands of seafarers are trapped. Either on ships, fatigued and fearing for their families, or stuck at home worried about for their livelihoods and even their careers. A reality which means we desperately need for fixes, and which means all of us in the maritime industry must be either calling for change or thinking how things can be done differently. As was recently rightly written in Splash, “Crew changes aren’t working”. How then can we fix them?

It would be all too easy to blame the current failings on Covid-19, and the virus does naturally colour the judgement and responses of nations towards international crews. However, what I believe we are seeing is actually a more widespread failure in international relations (IR).

Goodwill, conscience, convention and the desire to help all seemingly evaporate in a pandemic

Whereas global trade flows are the ties that bind nations, and shipping the thread that runs between us all. Alas we are seeing that there is little interest or capability at national levels when it comes to taking the challenging decisions of dealing with seafarers.

When it comes to the IR perspective, many theories abound. The key ones involve a struggle between “realism” and “constructivism”. The realists claim states are only ever driven by their self-interests, and to expect otherwise is to ignore the human nature at the heart of nations. While constructivists see that nations have to come together at certain points, to trade, to share the world and it is the structures that are created in doing so which drive state responses.

As with so much in life, the truth is probably somewhere between the two competing views. Which means that when it comes to seafarers, to ships, to issues of the oceans, then nations are often conflicted and even confused.

The realist perspective on foreign seafarers in a nation’s port or travelling to its airports is all about risk, and there is a negative view taken. What is to be gained by letting them move, versus the potential impact of them spreading the virus? All too often it seems the risks win out over any perceived rewards of facilitating crew changes. So, poor seafarers stay stuck.

The constructivist view is that a nation has signed up to conventions, protocols, agreements and the like, and should be looking to find answers. However, as they look around and see that other nations aren’t, they seemingly lose the will to assist. Goodwill, conscience, convention and the desire to help all seemingly evaporate in a pandemic.

In too many places around the world seafarers are stuck. They are seen as pariahs, banned from going ashore, stopped from flying home or joining ships. They have become the problem that no-one wants or knows how to deal with.

It was heartening to see the United Kingdom recently host a conference to try and pull other nations into solutions. However, despite the commitments and the optimism, it seems that we are no closer to solving the problem.

Seafarers are stuck, shipping could well grind to a stop, and it seems that no-one is really taking the initiative to find real solutions. Even more tellingly nations are not being singled out for reprimand or censure. Nations are free, as is their sovereign right, to do what they feel best. Alas the pessimism of realism, is seemingly holding the day.

What then is the answer? In the short term the leading maritime nations clearly need to step up, to find their focus and gird themselves to fight for what is right. Alas there is no amount of ship’s horns which will wake a government which does not really want to listen, or which cannot find its voice to speak out.

In the longer term, there could be an answer, and it involves a fundamental shift to construct a new reality in IR. Bear with me, it sounds a bit far-fetched. We need to create a new nation, one of the seas!

Now, it may not help the hundreds of thousands of seafarers suffering today, but eventually it could. It could make life at sea better. It could also mean we are better placed to combat piracy and crime, to deal with migration, to respond to stowaways, to protect the environment, to tackle overfishing and manage exploitation.

The goal must be to ensure that 70% of our planet is not considered a lawless frontier, but instead is recognised and able to take its place at the top table with rights and responsibilities, and with powers too.

Our current global system rests on the importance of sovereignty, and of nations as key actors finding ways of working together or doing whatever they like if they can’t. As such, over centuries the seas have been considered beyond this approach. They have been considered “open”, and with huge freedoms attached.

This convenient approach may have worked in the past, but there are clear cracks in a system which sees over half the planet beyond control. The seas are enigmatic, as we have a created a domain which belongs to everyone and no-one. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the go-to text, but that fails to truly anticipate or have solutions to many of the problems we are facing today. Lest we also forget, the United States is not even signatory to it.

So, we find ourselves at the current juncture. Seafarers feel betrayed by the flag states under whose banner they sail. They feel frustrated by the nations who they supply with food, fuel and goods. They also feel angry at their own countries, many of whom are simply not seemingly fighting hard enough to get their people home.

Nations failing their people, the global system of trade being undermined, seafarers left to suffer. We are in a real mess. So, what is the answer? Well, my argument is that oceans need a seat at the United Nations.

It is not a new idea. Almost half a decade ago, former Commander-in-Chief Fleet of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir James Burnell-Nugent argued that we face major political struggles to get governments to pay attention to maritime matters. As the current system means it is all too easy to ignore the problems, and even easier to shy away from solutions.

Giving a UN seat to international waters would allow a voice to represent concerns which impact the sea, he believed. I would even go further, and I say the oceans should have some formal position on the UN Security Council. So that there is a direct link to the highest level of decision making, and there can be no shying away or overlooking the importance of the seas.

The oceans should be kept open, they should remain the global commons that is vital to us all. However, they should be thought of differently, as should the people who work on them.

Building on this, I would make global seafarers “citizens” of the nation of the seas. Discharge books issued by the United Nations, with seafarers elevated to the status befitting the importance they have to the world.

This would allow us to create a mechanism which would respond to seafarer problems, which would be able to fight for the rights, respond to the wrongs and to have a constant eye and ear to what is happening beyond the horizon.

A seafaring state would be able to step in, to manage, to monitor and to facilitate. There could be no hiding place, no more failures from flag states, no more ignoring or sliding from the issue by seafarer’s home states. It could also finally help in holding the powerful charterers to account, maybe.

It would mean that the International Red Cross would be plugged into seafarer issues, not something that is left to welfare bodies and unions to bravely fight alone. It would mean that human rights could be better facilitated and more readily translated to an ocean environment, and transgressions would be prosecuted.

In short, it would be about the creation of a new state, a utopia, a new Atlantis. The idea is to allow the seas to be better understood, to be visible and to ensure better controls. Our oceans deserve this, society should want this, and coastal communities should embrace this. While for crews, they could finally be recognised, respected and revered as professionals. Lauded as not only key workers, but the people who make the world go round, and who can finally be allowed to go home.


  1. Brilliant!! Puts in perspective the challenges faced by seafarers so lucidly. An excellent read.

  2. This is not a new argument, but one which is a persistent ring of truth. Shipping, and by extension it’s crews, do not pay tax and so have no legislative voice. Airlines pay tax and their pilots, flight attendants and affiliated air crews move with relative freedom around this locked-down planet. Large State-sponsored Airlines have the ear of Governments – Shipping Companies incorporated in Panama, Liberia and the Bahamas do not. I’m a former seafarer and my heart goes out to the thousand of Masters, Officers, Engineers and Ratings stranded at sea with little or no prospect of relief. Maritime transport as the perfect free market has created it’s own perfect catastrophe by abrogating its responsibility to be a good corporate Citizens and provide a greater social contribution than 13 month contracts, minimum ITF wages and navigation dues. In my 43 years in the maritime industry, I am continually surprised at both the cheerful optimism of ship’s Crews and the despotic ‘economies’ imposed upon them. We’re all wondering what a post-COVID world will be like. I sincerely hope that COVID will change the maritime industry for the better and that ship’s crews will be viewed as more than a labour commodity. Here endeth the lesson…

    1. A few inputs for your info
      Airline crew have lost more jobs than seafarers. They have no help.
      Not all seafarers enjoy income tax exemption.

  3. This is indeed a very unique and novel approach, giving weightage, substance, and good sense to the issues at hand rather than the recent ramblings of high-flyers pontificating with blame culture but giving no substantial input towards actually putting in some intelligent inputs like this one.

  4. Dear friend, your proposal involves making sailors stateless. Monumental nonsense.

    1. How’s it working out for you under the current system? It’s a proposal to be pondered. If only people would open their minds as quickly as their laptops! When seafarers are home they are home, no one would want to take away their nationhood…just to add a layer of protection when they’re at sea. If ships can have dual registry, why not the crew?

      1. What protection? Who needs protection?? I feel protected but crew changes cannot be made without stopping ships. And that requires stopping the economy. What do you propose in this regard?

Back to top button