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After the G8: ILO discussion on security for seafarers takes on new urgency

The just-ended G8 meeting in Evian, France, cited the need to work urgently through the ILO to develop a heightened security regime for the world's 1.2 million seafarers. Since the 9/11 attacks, the need for secure and internationally agreed identity documents for seafarers has become even more important to ocean-going trade and commerce, as their freedom of movement comes under greater scrutiny or is denied altogether. Discussions at this year's International Labour Conference will seek agreement on new security measures for seafarers that could be implemented as early as June 2004.

Article | 23 May 2003

GENEVA (ILO Online) – Foot soldiers of international terrorism or would-be illegal migrants posing as merchant mariners? Or simply merchant mariners carrying out their duties as merchant mariners. In passing the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, the US Congress took a first step to protect the global maritime community from threats of terrorism. Other countries envisage similar measures as a means to stem the tide of illegal immigration.

Shipping employs today over 1.2 million seafarers of mixed nationalities the majority of whom come from developing countries and countries in transition. It is the engine of world trade. We tend to take for granted the wide variety of products on our shop shelves. In fact, almost 90 per cent of the volume of world trade is carried by sea.

Merchant seafarers are unique among industrial workers today. The ship is their home as well as their place of work and recreation, with the mariner spending an average of nine months a year at sea. In the context of world-wide tightening of security measures, the concern of the ILO is to ensure that the necessary balance is maintained between security interests and those relating to the welfare of seafarers and the facilitation of maritime commerce.

An internationally recognised seafarer ID document is at the heart of discussions, a fact that was endorsed at the recent G8 summit in Evian which cited the urgent need "to develop a secure, verifiable seafarer identity document at the International Labour Organization (ILO)". Such a document would be a substantial contribution to international security ensuring that the identity of seafarers in ports, airports and aboard ships can be positively established.

The June 2003 Conference of the ILO is taking up the question of adopting a new international convention to strengthen security aspects in its Seafarers' Identity Documents Convention, 1958 ( No. 108) and thus help to ensure that seafarers on ships visiting foreign ports are allowed to go ashore after often long periods at sea. As a result, it is expected that the movement of "bona fide" seafarers will be facilitated.

"We are now living in a world where we have competing but legitimate interests in security, the movement of maritime commerce, the well-being of these professional maritime workers and the facilitation of their professional movement. Urgent measures are clearly needed in order to balance these legitimate interests", says ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. "The ILO is providing a timely forum for governments, employers and workers to find the right solution to accommodate these interests.

There is so far no international mandatory specifications for international identity documents. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) issues guidance on the specifications for passports, visas and travel documents. It is currently developing specifications for a "smart" passport containing biometric information in RF-IC, a chip to be embedded in the travel documents.

The ILO draft convention to be discussed allows the ICAO specifications to be considered. However, security is not served only by having a tamper-proof document accurately identifying the holder. It is equally important to avoid the risk of its being issued to the wrong person. The draft convention therefore places great emphasis on requiring countries to maintain a proper database available for international consultation by authorized officials and to have and observe adequate procedures for the issuance of identity documents.

To take account of the urgency for a convention of this kind and also of the continuing need for extensive consideration of the most appropriate security features, the ILO draft for a new convention sets out the basic parameters and allows the details like the precise form of the ID to be fixed at a later stage. According to an ILO survey, the vast majority of its member States responding to a questionnaire are in favour of the use of biometric data on the ID, including one or more of the following: fingerprint, face, hand, or iris data. However, some countries as well as seafarers' organizations have serious queries or concerns especially on "human rights" aspects.

Although the new labour standard is based on the principle to hold costs as low as possible, some ILO members worry that such sophisticated identity documents would cost rather more than the existing cards which legitimise their seafarers.

"Success of the new convention will depend upon the availability of appropriate technical cooperation for countries in need of assistance", said Mr. Somavia.

A majority of ILO members is also in favour of the identification documents being issued by the country of nationality of the seafarers, albeit in a common format, perhaps akin to European Union passports. There is also support for the idea that the documents are both machine- and eye-readable.

The concept of a universal identification for seafarers was first mooted in the mid-1950s by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), ultimately taking shape in the ILO's Seafarers' Identity Documents Convention 1958 ( No.108). This convention has been ratified by 61 ILO member States representing 60.7 per cent of the world fleet. It is regarded as a useful instrument, but clearly in need of updating, to take account of modern techniques to deter fraud and forgery and to ensure a speedy and more accurate verification of identity, as well as uniformity in the way the necessary details are provided.