22 Sep 2023

Venue: Palais des Nations, Room XXV & Online | YouTube

Organization: Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council, Earthjustice

On the sidelines of 54th Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC54), this year’s Toxic Free Talks will take place from 20 to 22 September — three days of conferences and discussions, highlighting the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, and of organizations in the struggle for the right to live in a toxic-free environment. This side event to HRC54 discussed the need to develop a human rights-based analysis of IMO processes and ensure adequate incorporation of the human rights perspective into its stream of work.

About this Event

The work of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has always been relevant to human rights, considering the close connection between shipping and the environment and human beings. Various IMO treaties implicitly protect and promote human rights through their policies on the environment and the human element, and other IMO treaties explicitly do so.

Nevertheless, IMO and the shipping industry still face a number of human rights and environmental challenges, such as oil and toxic spills harming coastal communities; air emissions from vessels adversely affecting port cities and contributing to climate change; shipbreaking (and especially beaching of end-of-life vessels) releasing persistent hazardous pollutants to the environment; seafarers being exposed to hazardous working conditions; and transport of hazardous cargo posing risks to crew and the environment. Shipping thus impacts the enjoyment of a range of human rights.

However, IMO remains largely unknown to the human rights community, and there is little indication that the shipping industry considers human rights at the level of the existing relevance to its work. Therefore, following the report of the Special Rapporteur on his visit to the organization, it is urgent to develop a human rights-based analysis of IMO processes and ensure adequate incorporation of the human rights perspective into its stream of work.

About the Geneva Toxic Free Talks

The Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights reports every fall to the Council and to the UN General Assembly on issues related to his mandate. The Geneva Toxic Free Talks aim to harness the opportunity of this moment of the year to reflect on the challenges posed by the production, use, and dissemination of toxics and on how Geneva contributes to bringing together the actors working in reversing the toxic tide.

On the sidelines of HRC54, this year’s Toxic Free Talks will take place from 20 to 22 September — three days of conferences and discussions, highlighting the work of the Special Rapporteur and of organizations in the struggle for the right to live in a toxic-free environment.



UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights

Tian-Bing HUANG

Deputy Director, Sub-Division for Protective Measures, Marine Environment Division, International Maritime Organization


Programme Officer, Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions Secretariat


Founder & Director, NGO Shipbreaking Platform


Associate Professor, Specialist of Labour Relations | Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development (CSEND)


Senior Researcher, Asia Division and Global Health Initiative, Human Rights Watch


Senior Shipping Policy Officer, Seas at Risk


Representative of Earthjustice to the United Nations in Geneva | Moderator



Live on Webex

Live in the Room


UN Special Rapporteur Visit to IMO

Marcos ORELLANA | UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights

  • This is the result of the visit to the International Maritime Organization that started in 2020, and thanks the welcome of the organization. In the inception of this report, the Wakashio hit the island of Mauritius, spilled an enormous amount of fuel oil and damaging coastline, and deprived people from their livelihoods. Interventions and requests were made by people from Mauritius and others.
  • It became clear that the human rights community does not have much information on what the IMO does and the relevance of IMO instruments. There are organizations in the environmental movement that have followed and engaged the IMO, but largely, for the human rights community, it is not well-known.
  • It’s a two-way street: the shipping industry, for many years, has not had much interest in the human rights field may do or not in respect of its work. However, human rights have been relevant for the shipping industry on several issues:
    • Oil spills: though they have been reduced significantly, they remain a source of concern;
    • Everyday operational pollution that affects port cities;
    • Hazardous cargo, including chemicals, noxious substances, and plastic pellets, and issues concerning port management and facilities; and
    • Shipbreaking, dismantling, or recycling.
  • The global economy functions because of shipping. More than 90% of internationally traded goods are traded through seaborne vessels. IMO is the regulator for this activity. There are 50+ treaties enforced or concluded, but often, the enforcement capacity is lacking.
  • This is where issues of flags of convenience (a contested and controversial terminology, but mostly referring to countries that do not have either the will or the capacity to enforce the treaties) crop up. The IMO also deals with this through an innovative audit scheme that looks at compliance, from which international environmental law can draw lessons.

Comment from IMO

Tian-Bing HUANG | Deputy Director, Sub-Division for Protective Measures, Marine Environment Division, International Maritime Organization

IMO 2023 GHG reduction strategy | For over a decade now, IMO has acting to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from international shipping. One of the most important achievements of IMO’s work is the adoption of the 2023 IMO strategy and reduction of the GHG emissions from ships in July.

The 2023 strategy includes:

  • An enhanced ambition to reach net-zero GHG emissions from international shipping by or around 2050,
  • At least 5% (striving for 10%) of the energy used by international shipping to be zero or near zero GHG emissions by 2030,
  • Checkpoints to reduce the total annual GHG emission by at least 20 per cent striving for 30 per cent by 2030, and at least 70 per cent striving for 80 per cent by 2040 compared to 2008,

This is just the first step. The IMO member states have also agreed to adopt by 2025 a basket of technical and economic GHG reduction measures. In parallel, the work on the safety aspect of this transition has been started. A required training for seafarers are also being conducted. A comprehensive impact assessment has been initiated with a view to adjusting any disproportionate negative impacts from the measures from the State.

2025 Hong Kong Convention | The conditions for the Hong Kong Convention have been met and the Convention will take effect from 26 June 2025. This will open a new phase for its global implementation and be the opportunity to introduce amendments and improvements to the Convention based on the experience gained and lessons learned.

A successful example of the Convention would be the ship recycling technical assistance project in Bangladesh which led to the ratification of the Convention by Bangladesh in June.

50-year celebration of MARPOL | A series of events are being held in IMO to reflect the organization’s long history of protecting the environment from the impact of ships. A few achievement statistics:

  • Reduction of 90% of major oil spill reduction,
  • Establishment of a global framework for international cooperation and pollution preparedness and response,
  • Implementation of a global limit of 0.5 sulfur content used on board ships,
  • Prohibition applied to the discharge of all types of garbage including all plastics.

New Strategic Direction on Human Elements | IMO address human rights under its human elements components which is also one of the strategic direction of the organization. In addressing human elements-related issues, we take into consideration new technologies, alternative views, human-centered design principles, safe manning, drills and exercises, fatigue management, operational safety, security, and environment protection, among others.

IMO also promotes fair treatment of seafarers’ gender equality and empowerment of women and addresses seafarers’ abandonment, bullying, and harassment.

Perspectives on Developing a Human Rights-based Analysis of IMO

Susan WINGFIELD | Programme Officer, Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions Secretariat

  • BRS Conventions are global agreements or multilateral environmental agreements on chemicals and waste. We have a lot of involvement with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on several issues such as:
    • Waste from ship operations (MARPOL: waste derived by normal operations of a ship are excluded from Basel Convention),
    • Guidance manual on how to improve sea-land interface at ports,
    • London Convention and Protocol, in relation to the abandonment of ships,
    • Sea-based sources of plastic,
    • Issue of flag systems,
    • Hong Kong Convention for the safe and environmentally-sound recycling of ships.
  • This last point is probably one of the closest areas of cooperation with IMO. As the Basel Convention wasn’t necessarily developed with the realities of maritime transport in mind, this cooperation helped in terms of the state notification structure or prior informed consent (PIC) procedure which we have seen happening in real life.
  • Our Parties may now decide to discuss whether there is an equivalent level of control between the Basel Convention and the Hong Kong Convention. How the two Conventions will interact together is something that we anticipate will be a discussion moving forward.
  • Looking to issues impacting the application of a human rights-based approach to safety and health is key, and a human rights-based approach to environmental issues is key.
  • This is very apparent in some Conventions but not explicitly mentioned in the Hong Kong Convention perspective where there isn’t any human rights-based approach with regard to ship recycling. Moreover, ship recycling is focused on the South Asian community in an area where there may be weak legal frameworks and poor enforcement of those frameworks.
  • When it comes to ship recycling the operations are often tied to competitiveness and profitability. The ship owner on one side is looking to send the ship to the place where they will get the best price for that ship. Conversely, the yard is looking to minimize its costs in terms of profitability. A lot of safety, health, and environmental issues are related to ship recycling.
  • What can be done moving forward:
    • Ensuring a robust regime between the two conventions is going to be key in addition Hong Kong Convention. This will give the member states parties that have ratified the opportunity to review what has been done in terms of the convention and guidelines assess.
    • Facilities in both India and Bangladesh should be recognized for taking steps to really improve their practices,
    • Transparency in terms of the ship owners’ operations and stakeholder inclusion in the ship recycling countries.

These guiding principles on business and human rights are not legally binding but ship owners and that industry should be adhering to those principles. ESG exercises monitoring and Reporting need to be authentic exercises.

Ingvild JENSSEN | Founder & Director, NGO Shipbreaking Platform

  • NGO Shipbreaking Platform is a coalition of human rights and environmental NGOs also based in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan where most of the shipbreaking practices take place. We have been active in both the Basel Convention, as well as at the IMO when the Hong Kong Convention was being negotiated with several proposals on how to make sure that the IMO addresses this issue properly.
  • On externalizing costs. As an NGO, we monitor all vessels that end up being scrapped. We try and identify the companies who own these vessels:

Blue dots represent where the vessels are coming from. They come from Europe, East Asia, and the US primarily. Orange dots show where they end up, and the vast majority at 90% are still broken down in only three beaches in the world (Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh).

  • We also track accidents related to explosions or falling steel plates due to the lack of proper infrastructure to manage these massive vessels and the dangerous practices of taking them apart.
  • Many workers become sick many years after having worked at these facilities due to exposure to toxic fumes and toxic materials. The World Bank in 2010 estimated that Bangladesh through a 20-year period before 2030 would have imported 79,000 tons of asbestos, 240,000 tons of PCB-containing materials, and 69,000 tons of paints containing heavy metals through the import of end-of-life vessels.
  • There have been some improvements in some facilities. However, the vast majority of shipbreaking in Bangladesh and elsewhere is causing harm to local communities, livelihoods, and the environment. There shouldn’t be a double standard in the sense that we allow this in South Asia but not in Europe, the US, or China.
  • The Basel Convention has a very important role to play in this issue. The Hong Kong Convention unfortunately does not look at how these hazardous materials contained in vessels are managed. We are looking to amend the Convention and improve the standard that it sets for ship recycling.
  • Our recommendations to the IMO include the following:
    1. The technical capacity and expertise within the shipping industry exist. We need to bring best practices to all parts of the world.
    2. There are certain concerns with the way the IMO or shipping is regulated through a flag State regime and some of our observations with regards to ship breaking is that there are certain flags that are very popular at the end of life (Saint Kitts, Nevis, Palau, etc.).These are black or grey listed by the Paris MOU, known for the poor implementation of international maritime law. The vast majority of the vessels that end up in South Asia are sailing under these flags, and I’ve changed to these flags just weeks before hitting the beaches. This is an issue that we would really encourage the IMO to take seriously in order to ensure that there are responsible flag registries.

Li-chuan LIUHUANG | Associate Professor, Specialist of Labour Relations | Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development (CSEND)

  • My research has been focusing on sustainable distant water fishing, and the toxic caused by fishing vessels. There is an estimated 4.1 million fishing vessels in the world, and around 65 percent of total vessels are in the Asian region (around 2.68 million) (FAO, 2022).
  • A Story of Mr. Kung | A small-scale vessel owner who may be hiring migrant workers is a common situation in East Asia and in Southeast Asian countries. He faces challenges such as decreasing fishing stocks, limited quota for tuna, huge increase of oil price, the pressure from the market where the vessel has to sell their capture immediately, and floating exchange rate.
  • Another challenge from the social dimension: when we’re talking about more Asian countries, they adopt a stricter labor and environmental standards which applies to all scales of vessels (not only for the big vessel and but also small vessels). Moreover, the impacts of ILO conventions, such as C188 on Work in Fishing make working conditions more protected.
  • To face his over-indebted business, only two options are offered to a vessel owner:
    • To keep fishing: possibility of being entrapped in IUU fishing, getting involved with abusing working conditions to save labor cost, and facing penalties.
    • To shift careers: When the playground is only for bigger fishing vessels, small scale vessels need to transition. There will be questions on how to solve the problem for the FRP or glass fiber vessels: burning, landfilling or at sea disposal. It is too costly to find an ideal solution, and there are possible implications for marine communities.
  • Mr Kung is just among hundreds of thousands of small-scale resource owners and fishers. “Business and human rights: but without businesses where do we enforce human rights?”
  • Small scale vessel owners and fishers are the base of fishing supply chain, but often they have less voice and are the least organize as they spend most of their time at sea. When we are talking about just transition, we need to apply it within a global supply chain context.

Julia BLECKNER | Senior Researcher, Asia Division and Global Health Initiative, Human Rights Watch

Our Research | We interviewed dozens of shipbreaking workers in Bangladesh who described abusive and dangerous working conditions. The ILO has described ship shipbreaking as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Yet workers in Bangladesh consistently told us that they’re not provided with adequate protective equipment, training, or infrastructure.

Workers described using their socks as gloves to avoid burning their hands as they cut through molten steel wrapped their shirts around their mouths to avoid inhaling toxic fumes and carrying chunks of chunks of Steel across the sand barefoot they described injuries falling from pieces of from falling pieces of the ship, or being trapped inside when a ship was caught on fire where pipes exploded.

  • All shipbreaking in Bangladesh is done by the beaching method. The work site itself is full of hazards and toxic waste, dumped directly into the sand and the sea. Because the work is done on the beach, the shipyards are generally inaccessible for emergency vehicles, meaning that in case of injury, workers are forced to carry their injured co-workers from the beach to the road in their arms and find a private vehicle to take them to a hospital.

Concerns on the IMO and Hong Kong Convention| IMO could play an important role in preventing the abuses that we found in Bangladesh by regulating and enforcing environmental and labor Protections in the shipbreaking industry.

  • However, we’re concerned that the outside influence of certain flag States at the IMO limits its ability to act as an effective regulator. Because flags of convenience are up for sale, and decisions that the IMO are weighted by the representation of the world fleet, we’re concerned that the shipping industry can influence important regulations regarding labor, health, human rights, and environmental protections essentially by buying flags and thus influence at the IMO.
  • Such influence has weakened the ability of the Hong Kong Convention to protect against abuses and environmental damage. The convention does not ban or even discourage the beaching method, and does not ban the movement of ships containing hazardous materials. The convention also makes it easy to approve substandard yards and relegates assessments to local authorities without independent oversight.
  • It should be strengthened to effectively regulate the industry, and countries should continue to adhere to existing International labor and environmental laws regulating the disposal of ships (including the Basel Convention).
  • It is our hope that the IMO will undertake the special rapporteur recommendations in order to institutionalize a transparent and human rights-based approach, in order to ensure that the lives of those most vulnerable in the shipping industry are protected and their rights are respected.

Lucy GILLIAM | Senior Shipping Policy Officer, Seas at Risk

  • We are members of the Clean Shipping Coalition and have observer status at the International Maritime Organisation.
  • We work on all aspects of shipping pollution and recently published a report on the State of shipping & oceans which details all the ways that shipping pollutes the marine environment from climate and air pollution to toxics, chemicals and plastics pollution like pellets, container loss All of which is harming biodiversity and the intricate web of life in the oceans.
  • So while the IMO is to be commended on the agreement of all these instruments to deal with shipping pollution The reality on the water is somewhat different. Oil spills from shipping are still a regular occurrence. We see this from satellite monitoring. The sulphur cap in 2020 is goal based so includes a compliance methos of use of exhaust gas cleaning system that basically remove the sulphur from exhaust to immediately transfer to ocean which we think contravenes UNCLOS. The greenhouse gas agreement this summer, while better than the previous agreement is not aligned with 1.5C pathway. Limiting heating to below 1.5 is critical to protect polar regions and low-lying island states and coastal communities.
  • This summer a marine biologist and climate advocate from Mauritius Shaama Sandooyea was hosted on the Clean Shipping Coalition this summer during the 80th session of the Marine Environment Protection Committee.
  • Three years ago, the bulk carrier MV Wakashio stranded on the reefs in Mauritius and 1000 tons of oil was spilled in the lagoon, destroying marine lives. Shamma told us that “today, it’s the people’s lives that are destroyed – they have health problems, they cannot eat the seafood, they are struggling to make ends meet, they cannot send their kids to school.”
  • In just two years, 8 vessels stranded in Mauritian waters, and some are still there. Scientists are expecting this year’s El Niño to be very consequent. This means more extreme climatic conditions at sea, more maritime accidents, more damages.
  • When these sorts of accidents happen there is a rarely a full and timely accident report. In the case of Wakashio there are a lot of unanswered questions, and the flag state requested a delay to submission of the report of the accident. The communities impacted haven’t had the resources to properly clean up the environment nor cover the costs to their community. Currently the system protects the polluters at the expense of the people and the environment.
  • We all have the human right to a clean environment! But globally rarely have that right in reality. Our lungs are colonized by air pollution. Our waters are polluted with chemicals and plastics. The poles are melting at unprecedented rates removing entire ecosystems that indigenous communities depend on. Islands are disappearing into the sea from climate change.
  • The IMO must fully acknowledge human rights in all aspects of negotiations. I was horrified to hear a delegate say during climate negotiations that human rights should not be part of the principles agreed in the climate negotiations. Unfortunately, I am not permitted to say which country said this because of rules of the IMO. We need more transparency, so people are accountable for what they say. Because how can such things be considered reasonable to say in a UN fora? Clearly there is a need for a mindset shift required from those that represent all of us at the United Nations in these negotiations at the International Maritime Organisation.
  • We also need to see more indigenous communities to have observer status. Currently there is only 1 observer representing indigenous communities, Inuit Circumpolar Council and they were admitted just last year!
  • I agree with the speaker from CSEND that we need a wider full supply chain perspective for just transition. Because we also need to reconfigure supply chains to reach zero emissions, design out waste and hyper consumption from our societies which will require changes in global trade and shipping.

Concluding Remarks

Tian-Bing HUANG

  • We are working on the beaching method. The entry into force of the Convention provides a good opportunity to improve it.
  • We are also working hard with the government of the relevant ship recycling states to get as many as possible ships to recycling facilities to be improved and certified.
  • We are also working on the safety and the environmental protection of the fishing vessels, and the issue of the marine plastic pellets. We will fully consider the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on toxic and human rights.


  • On the issue of just transition, this is a question of how to do the transition, not if the transition needs to be done.
  • On shipbreaking and beaching, the transfer of hazardous waste to the developing world and the dumping of persistent pollutants capable of long-range transport means that there is a global interest in this matter.
  • I very much welcome the IMO statement that the recommendations in my report will be considered.

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