The Increasing Scope of the Obligation to Investigate Human Rights Abuses at Sea


9BRi Barrister David Hammond and Ben Hardman of Stephenson Harwood LLP assess the increasing scope of the obligation to investigate human rights abuses at sea.


1. Grave breaches of human rights at sea on British flagged vessels are hopefully relatively few and far between. Even so, the UK State is bound by obligations to put in place measures to prevent such breaches and, when they do occur, to investigate them.

2. International law also imposes positive obligations on States to act when they have effective control over a location. Indeed, it is fair to say that the precise extent of the obligations on a State and the associated measures that can and in some cases must be taken against perpetrators of human rights breaches are constantly evolving, including those in the maritime environment.

3. On 22 May 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (the “ECtHR”) handed down a judgment in the case of Gray v. Germany2 (“Gray”) that could mark a significant step in this evolution. The case involved medical negligence, but its influence may have a much broader scope and may well reach in to the maritime industry, including the maritime security industry.

4. The implications of the Gray case include a potential obligation on the UK authorities to investigate any excessive use of force or improper treatment of individuals by maritime security providers on board a commercial vessel if the alleged perpetrators later return to and reside in the UK. Investigatory obligations could also arise in relation to potential alleged human rights abuses in human trafficking cases and even in relation to the rescuing of refugees and migrants in distress by commercial vessels.

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Ben Hardman – Senior Associate, Stephenson Harwood LLP

David Hammond – Barrister-at-Law, 9 Bedford Row



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