David Hammond discusses the future of Human Rights at Sea

David Hammond, former CEO of NGO Human Rights at Sea

David Hammond, former CEO of NGO Human Rights at Sea, has retired to become trustee of the charity. Credit: Human Rights at Sea.

Sat eating lunch with David Hammond in Holborn, London, just weeks before he will be retiring from his role of chief executive at the charity Human Rights at Sea (HRAS), he shows no signs of slowing down. Later that day he has a series of meetings before heading back down to his base in Havant – he decided to give up a pricey London office to put as much money as possible back into the charity – where he will most likely continue working into the night.

Hammond officially founded Human Rights at Sea on 3 April 2014 using his life savings, "which I’ll never see back”, and has not taken a wage in his role as chief executive, working non-stop, seven days a week, often waking at 3 am. When I ask when he finds time to sleep, he wryly repeats a lesson learnt from his time spent as a Royal Marines officer: “You sleep when it’s necessary.”

Hammond was drawn into international human rights during his time working as an English barrister with the Royal Marines before going to Quadrant Chambers in 2012 and 9 Bedford Row in 2013. He also served as UK counsel to the Libyan National Council for Civil Liberties and Human Rights. However, it was a fateful question from a client about the “landscape was for human rights at sea” that ultimately led to the creation of the charity. “I typed 'human rights at sea' into Google and in 2014 there was no platform. We had labour rights, human rights, women’s rights, but human rights at sea: nothing.”

This should come as a shock, and did for Hammond, when you consider the integral role that shipping plays in the world economy, transporting more than 90% of the world’s goods by sea, and the hundreds of thousands of seafarers – not to mention migrants and fisherman – that travel around the world by sea each year. “I bought the website Human Rights at Sea that night and started what I thought would be a fairly small initiative,” he says. “But in May 2015 it became a registered charity in England and Wales and from there it just exploded.”

Hammond  had no idea of the enormity of problems and abuses that the charity would end up highlighting, as well as defining what constituted abuse and where it was taking place across the entire industry and maritime environment. “At the top of the list was, and still is, flag state impunity, currently followed by greater education for everybody – CEOs, managing directors, and down the chain. It is not just in the first world of shipping, the Maersks and the DNV GLs, that we look at, but into the dark corners, the second and third world.”

In setting up the charity Hammond undertook an in-depth gap analysis of other maritime charities and found a number of key focus areas, including missing seafarers, deprivation of liberty at sea, mental health and trauma guidance, gender, LGBTI, and abandonment. They took a “scatter-gun approach” to those areas, aiming to see which areas would stick; little did they know they would all stick.

This has led to the charity working on a number of initiatives, including seafarer abandonment case studies, and has seen it collaborate with international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in advocating against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in Thailand, fundraising for the making of a film by a young team from 6th International Films about migrant abuses called The Dead Sea, the launch of eight maritime publications, including a first maritime review of the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and on delivering the first 'Diversity and inclusion' e-learning course for seafarers through a partnership with Marlins. In September 2016, the charity held the inaugural International Maritime Human Rights conference in London, featuring speakers from around the world.

Moving forward, Hammond says the new chief executive will help to refine the output of the charity, focusing on a second International Maritime Human Rights conference to be held in October 2018, as well as driving the charity’s educational material and publications. HRAS will continue to release a series of 20 educational films, the first of which, launched in July 2017, aimed to make seafarers aware of the protection they are entitled to under national and international law, while the second, launched in November 2017, looks into how labour rights fit into human rights.

Transcribing the charity's educational videos and materials into multiple languages will be big project going forward. In 2017, HRAS produced its ‘Remaining Resilient after Traumatic Events” leaflet into the Tagalog language, and hopes to also produce it in Russian and Chinese. 

The road to this point hasn’t always been an easy one and Hammond is vocal in his criticism of the maritime charity sector and how it reacted to the “disruptive new kid on the block”. Hammond says he went into the maritime charity arena with an open door policy and hoped to collaborate with other more established organisations. Instead, he claims politics and a competitive environment got in the way.

“The reality is that if people stopped being precious about their own little empires and saw the bigger picture and worked collegiately and collectively it would be much more effective.” He adds, “There has been a lot of bad behaviour behind the scenes towards us. You would expect the childlike behaviour of playground politics to have been left behind at junior school. Frankly, people have got to get over themselves and their egos and actually look at common delivery points.”

Support was found elsewhere in the likes of Seafarers UK, along with other welfare organisations such as the Mission to Seafarers, Apostleship of the Sea, the Sailor’s Society, and the UK Fisherman’s Mission. Hammond admits that part of his stepping down as chief executive is to distance himself as the only face of the charity in a bid to increase engagement with organisations that might see “David Hammond as marmite”. However, the aims of the charity remain the same.

At four years old HRAS is no longer the young upstart on the block and has a wide-reaching internet presence, with more than 20,000 Twitter followers. Furthermore, HRAS is working in partnership with the University of Bristol Law School on a series of projects, case preparations, and educational material. “We are starting to get lot of enquiries from PhD students doing their thesis on human rights at sea,” says Hammond.

Raising the visibility and awareness of human rights abuses in the maritime world to wider society is clearly beginning to work. As Hammond puts it, “The conversation about what human rights at sea is, is growing.” It is a conversation that shipowners are also becoming a part of, and Hammond says they often discretely come to the charity for pro bono advice. HRAS has set up a publicly traded company that now charges for such advice. Its funds then get reinvested in the charity.

Now, settling into his role as executive director of the independent Swiss Foundation for Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing, based in Geneva, Hammond stresses that being at the “centre of decision-making for NGOs” puts him in a much stronger position to assist HRAS and it continues to be a vocation for him.  “It took William Wilberforce his entire life to address the slavery issue. I see advocating for human rights at sea as a lifetime's work.”

Contact Tanya Blake or follow on twitter @Tanya_Blake

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