2020 Day of the Seafarer – Seafarers are Key Workers

The IMO didn’t need extensive research to set its theme for the 2020 edition of the Day of the Seafarer. On Thursday, 25th of June, “Seafarers are Key Workers” will be all over media platforms and celebrations will take place, albeit mostly virtually.

As explained on IMO website: “This year, the Day of the Seafarer campaign calls on Member States to recognize seafarers as key workers – and to provide them with the support, assistance and travel options open to all key workers during the pandemic.”

The hashtag #SeafarersAreKeyWorkers will help promoting the campaign. But expect bitter comments on Twitter, Facebook, et. al., as crew changes have been hampered for three months, with little signs of improvement.

As indicated by the ILO earlier in June, between 150 000 and 200 000 crewmembers are trapped on board ships. The International Transport Federation recently found the most appropriate catchphrase: Enough is enough, Crew change NOW!

Terminology used to describe this crisis has recently evolved and ramped up to translate how intolerable the situation has become, now being dubbed a “humanitarian crisis”.

As seafarers comment on IMO Twitter account and elsewhere: no more words, we want actions.

Yes the IMO has been slow and its response lacked lustre. But one must be fair to the UN specialised agency: by nature and tradition, the IMO is not a place where pragmatic and practical measures are agreed promptly between States to solve a compelling and new issue. Urging, prompting, calling States (coastal, port and flag States) is what IMO usually does, because that’s all it is allowed to do! The IMO does not legislate for States. States obligations are laid out through international treaties, such as UNCLOS and more “technical” ones such as MARPOL, SOLAS etc.

If crew changes have stopped and seafarers are stranded, it is also a consequence of States tightly closing their borders, which led to international flights being inexistent. Not much the IMO can do here. The basic requirements and obligations sustaining free-flow of persons and opened ports are laid out either in the IMO Convention on Facilitation of maritime traffic and the WHO International Health Regulations. But all good intentions in those treaties came quickly to an end when States adopted tight restrictions, as allowed in case of threatening epidemic.

Can States be promptly forced into action by the IMO? That would be a first in its +70 years of history. It is almost impossible to draw binding or mandatory measures in a 1-month timeframe, especially with all physical meetings suspended at the IMO headquarters, London. Sanctions are a no-go as well.

What usually works well to get the ball rolling, is the threat by one given State, or group of States, to establish unilateral actions. It has been an efficient lever to break resistance in the environmental arena, alas it would be difficult to replicate such dynamic for the COVID-19 crisis. Initiatives that amount to a “name and shame” programme have also been tested at the IMO and could be envisaged here, but this is very unlikely to receive agreement from States. No one wants too much attention being drawn to its own failures in current circumstances.

Unless IMO and its Member States start thinking outside the box and overcome the inherent constraints of a UN body, international cooperation remains the best tested method in the toolbox. Will it be enough to save stranded seafarers, probably and sadly not this time.













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