The Outlaw Ocean, by Ian Urbina

Summary: an impressive work of investigative journalism detailing the vast scale of human rights abuses and environmental damage in the world’s oceans.

The Outlaw Ocean is based on a celebrated series of articles that Ian Urbina wrote for the New York Times on the struggles for human rights and environmental standards in the vast lawless expanses of the world’s seas.

It is an impressive achievement, but also a deeply depressing one. As well as the continuing butchery of the planet’s whales, Urbina catalogues the environmental devastation of bottom trawling, the damage caused by the oil and gas industries, the risks arising from the destruction, “bleaching”, of the world’s corals, and the routine and brutal enslavement of seafarers, particularly fishermen, on the world’s ships and boats.

There are some heartening descriptions of the work of activists, such as those of Stella Maris or Sea Shepherd, who strive to bring some measure of humanity to this brutal realm, and there are exciting descriptions of some of their operations. But, appositely enough, all these seem like drops in the ocean such is the scale of the both environmental and human rights challenges.

Urbina shows how the abuses at sea are perhaps the most extreme example in history of the “tragedy of the commons” – the idea that when, in effect, everyone is responsible for something then no one actually takes responsibility. International maritime law, such as it exists, empowers states with its enforcement. This means that on the high seas – beyond territorial waters – a vessel flagged to a particular country can only be boarded by a war ship of that country. So the vast majority of the ships are simply never inspected at all. A land locked country like Mongolia, to which many ships are registered under flags of convenience, does not even have a navy.

Much maritime law, such as the 2006 international convention, does not apply to fishing vessels anyway which can do so much environmental damage through overfishing and other devastating fishing practices. Consequently slavery is also endemic on these vessels, most notoriously on the high seas of South East Asia. But I have also encountered it in the territorial waters of Myanmar and Ireland due to poor regulation and inadequate inspection.

Those who are enslaved are generally migrants, so desperately poor that they are driven to seek work from unscrupulous labour brokers. Urbina describes how sharp practices amongst labour brokers lead to seafarers becoming debt bonded, a form of slavery recognised in international law. Once this has happened the boat captains who receive them as crew routinely use physical violence, including murder, to keep discipline.

Urbina’s impressive work shows how the roots of enslavement on the sea lie on land in the indebtedness of the families and communities from which seafarers originate. This is something I also found in 2019 when researching the enslavement of raft fishermen in Myanmar’s Gulf of Motama. Hence it is a logical extension of Urbina’s research that prevention of slavery requires focussed attention on eliminating the debt that is the key mechanism for so much contemporary slavery.

Such is the scale of “modern” slavery, currently estimated as affecting over 40 million people globally, that meaningful action to reduce these numbers would require a response of comparable imaginative and actual scale to the Marshall Plan. Such a plan should focus on creation in slavery vulnerable communities of decent work, and direct cash transfers to secure early child development and school attendance. A crackdown on usurious money lenders and unscrupulous labour brokers would also be a welcome thing.

Until that happens Urbina’s work will stand as an appalling indictment of the human rights and environmental carnage at sea that the world is collectively turning a blind eye to.

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