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Maritime convention amendments enter into force tomorrow

Briefing notes

Maritime convention amendments enter into force tomorrow

30 June 2006

In recent years, TV audiences around the world have grown used to the images of men, women and children crammed on rusty, unseaworthy boats braving the waves in search of work, better living conditions or protection against persecution.

People taking to sea in this way do so for a mixture of reasons. UNHCR has a direct interest in their fate since, even if the majority may be migrants without international protection needs, a certain proportion of those travelling irregularly by sea turn out to be refugees.

Every year, an unknown number of people drown in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Caribbean and other waterways around the world, as their vessels capsize. A few lucky ones are rescued by passing ships - for the most part merchant vessels - that heed the moral and legal imperative to assist persons in distress at sea.

But vessels fulfilling their humanitarian duty have encountered problems as states have occasionally refused to let some migrants and refugees rescued at sea disembark, especially when they lacked proper documentation. This state of affairs put shipowners and companies in a very difficult situation, even threatening the integrity of the time-honoured humanitarian tradition to assist those in peril at sea.

Recognizing this problem, signatory states to the relevant international maritime conventions - the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (the SOLAS Convention), and the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (the SAR Convention) - have introduced some amendments that will enter into force tomorrow (1 July).

The amendments aim to ensure that the obligation of the shipmaster to render assistance is complemented by a corresponding obligation of states to co-operate in rescue situations, thereby relieving the master of the responsibility to care for survivors, and allowing individuals who are rescued at sea in such circumstances to be delivered promptly to a place of safety.

In short, the amendments require signatory states and other parties to co-ordinate and co-operate to ensure that ships rescuing persons in distress face minimum disruption in their schedules by arranging disembarkation as soon as reasonably practicable. For their part, shipmasters who have picked up persons in distress at sea are obliged to treat them humanely, within the capabilities of the ship.

To help shipmasters, shipowners, government authorities, insurance companies, and other interested parties involved in rescue at sea situations, UNHCR and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will soon issue an information leaflet that will provide guidance on relevant legal provisions and procedures.