HRAS Interview No. 28: NGO Confronts Abortion Rights at Sea

Last year’s Zika virus outbreak saw a dramatic increase in demand for safe abortions in Latin-American countries.

The virus can cause foetal brain developmental problems, and data from Women on Web, an NGO that provides access to safe abortions in countries where they are not universally available, was used to verify the jump in what activists and doctors had been reporting as an acute need for abortion services. The World Health Organization predicts that the Zika virus will affect four million people globally in 2017, but the associated risks are just one of many reasons why a woman may seek an abortion.

Dr Rebecca Gomperts

Women on Web is an extension of the NGO Women on Waves. Both NGOs were founded by Dr Rebecca Gomperts with the aim of bringing legal abortions and reproductive health services to women in countries with restrictive abortion laws.

Sailing in international waters gives Women on Waves the freedom to conduct abortions legally, so long as the vessel flies the flag of a country where abortion is legal. The NGO has sailed vessels to Ireland, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Morocco and, most recently, Guatemala. In this South American country, abortion is only legal if the woman’s life is at risk. However, around 65,000 abortions are performed there illegally each year.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to Dr. Gomperts about women’s rights and the challenges the NGOs face.

How many abortions are performed around the world?

Dr Rebecca Gomperts talking to media in Spain

There are 43 million abortions taking place every year throughout the world. In the Netherlands and the U.S., one out of five (Netherlands) or one out of three (U.S.) women will have an abortion once or twice in their lifetime.

The Netherlands has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world, because there is good sexual education and contraception is widely available.

The lowest abortion rate in the world is eight per thousand per year in women of child bearing age. That’s translates to a rate of one in five women having an abortion in their lifetime. It is the minimum rate that can be achieved, because contraceptives fail, and that is the most common grounds for having an abortion in the Netherlands. Women used contraceptives, but they didn’t work.

Are women of certain religious, cultural or social backgrounds most affected by lack of access to abortion services?

It doesn’t matter what religion or what race women are. What matters is their socio-economic background and whether or not they can afford to have safe abortions. That’s all: in any country, in any religion.

The problem occurs when there’s no safe abortion services available. This doesn’t prevent abortions from happening; it just creates social injustice, because the women in the country that have money, that are in higher social classes, that have access to doctors there, are able to get an abortion even though it is very expensive. In Brazil, for example, an illegal abortion with a doctor can cost at least $1,500 dollars.

Alternatively, women are traveling to have an abortion. We see this in Ireland. In Northern Ireland, abortion is illegal, so women have to travel to the U.K. An abortion for women that live in the U.K. is free, but it’s not for women who live in Northern Ireland. They need at least 2,000 Euros.

So, it’s the poor women, the women who don’t have access to information, who are actually effected by restrictive abortion laws. That is the heart of this issue. An anti-abortion law is not going to stop abortions, and women who have no means or that are poor will suffer from the consequences. They are the ones that will have unsafe abortions if there is no other alternative.

In the U.K., as well, there’s many women who can’t get to an abortion clinic. They might be in an abusive relationship, or they have kids at home, they can’t take time off work, they don’t have money for a babysitter, they are in rural areas or they have to travel a prohibitively long way to get to a clinic.

How can the situation be changed?

Only when abortion is totally decriminalized can all of women’s rights be respected. We are advocating for making the abortion pill available in pharmacies, like Viagra. Viagra is more dangerous to use then the medical abortion pill, much more dangerous, and it’s readily available in pharmacies.

Why is a medical abortion pill not available in pharmacies? Because it’s effecting women and not men. This is about equal rights.

Medical science should determine how a medicine is available and not criminal laws.

Women on Waves in Morocco

How does Women on Waves help women to have an abortion?

Our yacht can carry eight to 10 people, and we have many doctors that participate and a gynecologist who often goes along.

On board, we have a mobile ultrasound and medicines and all the emergency medicines that are needed.

We launch a hotline and announce the service so that women can call and make an appointment. The ship comes into the harbor, the women come aboard, a maximum of five per day, and then we sail out. There is counseling according to Dutch-European standards, and then in international waters, women will take the abortion pill if they still want to.

They then go ashore, and we keep in touch by telephone. They can do a follow up pregnancy test or come to the ship for an ultrasound if they wish.

The pill can be used safely until 10 weeks of pregnancy.

What are the human rights issues relating to the foetus?

Women are risking their health and their life to have a baby. Giving birth is one of the riskiest events in a woman’s life. In the Netherlands, 10,000 women die from giving birth each year. In other countries, the number is much higher.

Of course, most women want to have the pregnancy, and they want to continue it. But, if you look at the right to life and the right to health of the woman when it concerns the pregnancy, her risk is much greater if she continues it. So, her life has precedence over the foetus, because there is no viable foetus until 24 weeks of pregnancy.

If the foetus would be born at that time, it has some chance of survival significant enough for most people to say that this is when the rights of the foetus become important. Then, for example in the U.K. or Netherlands, one cannot choose to have an abortion any more.

Crew detained in Guatemala

Do you receive support or at least acceptance from maritime authorities in the countries you visit?

No. The port state authorities are quite difficult, although they are often being directed by the government. In Portugal, they stopped us from sailing in, and in Guatemala they didn’t let anyone near the ship or let the crew out. The ship was expelled from port for reasons of state security. So, women needing an abortion are an issue of state security?

We’ve had a couple of case where navies have intervened. That says something! Why would the military intervene with something that is only about women, her body, her rights, her health? I think that this shows we are actually talking about fundamental freedoms.

These government interventions are not physical violence, but I feel like they are a form of intimation which is very violent, especially since the crew and the ship hadn’t done anything.

How do you feel about criticism of what you are doing?

We get a lot of very grateful women. That’s what matters to us. That’s the only thing that is at stake. Any other actions and opinions don’t really matter. It’s the women that need help.

Women on Waves in Guatemala

Do you feel safe in international waters?

Yes, because the law of the flag state applies. The whole world functions like this, right? It’s part of what the biggest businesses do. We are doing the same as any company would do when they are going to countries, for example, because they have another banking system or other tax laws.

We use it for human rights issues and health issues for women, so it’s better.

But it’s not a legal vacuum. It’s just different regulations and different laws around the world that we are using to make sure women are safe. There is very clear agreement internationally that, if a ship is in international waters, the law of the ship’s flag applies. The ship is a piece of ground of that country.

It’s not like we have no law, rather we have to comply with the laws of another country.

Thank-you, Dr Gomperts.


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The HRAS Interview: Giorgia Linardi – Mediterranean Migrants

Mediterranean Migrants: Becoming Part of the System

At sea, rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean, 25-year-old Giorgia Linardi met a woman that reminder of her mother. Like her mother, the woman was a doctor, a specialist; their ages were similar. But, unlike her mother, this woman had lost her family, her home, had no phone to call her brother in Germany, and so was prostituting herself for $5 a time, as she tried to raise the money to buy herself a spot on a rubber boat to Europe.

HRAS spoke to Giorgia, a volunteer legal advisor with the rescue NGO, Sea-Watch, about the plight of the people on those boats and the razor-sharp dilemma of would-be rescuers.


You have been undertaking rescues with Sea-Watch for a year now, both in the central Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. What condition are the people in when you find them?

Leaving Turkey, people have to hide themselves in the woods. They are abused, persecuted, arrested, tortured and sometimes the women have to prostitute themselves in order to get on board. In Libya, they are detained for months in prison or prison-like houses where they eat on the floor and are beaten all the time.

There are major crimes related to people smuggling involved in some cases. I have seen cases of women travelling with a group of children of the same age. These women are offered cheaper rates to act on behalf of human traffickers working in the slave trade to Europe.

All these things mean that the physical and mental condition we find these people in can be horrible. They usually haven’t eaten for a long time. They are highly dehydrated if they have been at sea for some time, sometimes having drunk seawater.

This is particularly the case in the central Med, where the trip is longer than in the Aegean. In the central Med, Sea-Watch operates in a tract of sea that is 260 nautical miles wide, whereas in the Aegean the passage from Turkey to Greece is five nautical miles.

In the Aegean, they are generally in better condition, but winter is very cold there. In rubber boats, they are literally freezing. We’ve had cases of people needing limbs removed after their journey, because their hypothermia was too advanced for the doctors to save them. Treated promptly, amputation could have been avoided.

It seems like few Europeans empathize with these people. They feel the people making these journeys are so different from us, and this makes me angry. We cannot see ourselves in the same situation, of course, because it is so horrible. We are not used to it, and yet these people are seldom able to speak for themselves. When they do, the only thing they can do is make a desperate plea for help. This is a very dehumanizing situation to be in.


Initially, wooden boats were more commonly used in the central Med, but now rubber boats are commonly being used by traffickers in both regions. How does this impact rescue efforts?

Around 150 people can be crammed on a rubber boat which is made from material just a millimetre or two thick, and extremely unstable. The boats have very small engines that are incapable of propelling the weight of all the people crowded on. Usually the women and children are in the middle, and we cannot even see them, so we often don’t know how many people are actually on the boat. When you take them off, it’s like a magic trick. You can’t imagine where they are all coming from.

The situation is problematic during their journey, because they can’t move, and they risk suffocation. We witnessed one case where a child died in the water inside the boat. The search and rescue team brought him to shore, but it was too late.

The rubber boats usually carry less people than wooden boats, though, and there is still something you can hang on to if it sinks. Wooden boats sink quickly, and you have two or three hundred people falling into the water all at once.

How are relations between NGO rescuers and Coast Guard agencies?

Usually, in the central Med, the smugglers give each rubber boat a satellite phone so they can make a distress call. The boats are not meant to make it to Europe really, just out to where they can be picked up. There is a rescue coordination centre managed by the Coast Guard in Rome, and they receive the distress calls and then direct the rescue boats.

In the central Med, we work very well with the Coast Guard. The NGOs, such as MSF, MOAS, Sea-Watch and others, are the only other operators with a search and rescue mandate. There are a lot of naval ships in the area, and they will assist if needed, but it is not their sole mandate like it is the NGOs’.

In the Aegean, our relationship with the Coast Guard has always been a little bit more difficult. They do not trust the work of the NGOs and have prohibited us from patrolling, because they see us as a “pull factor” encouraging people to attempt the crossing. They have threatened to accuse us of facilitating illegal immigration even if we only assist boats once they cross the border between Turkey and Greece. So, it’s been a bit up and down, and there is not the centralized coordination that there is in the central Med.


What are the issues from a human rights perspective?

What happens to these people before they leave and as they make their journey is a violation of many basic human rights. These people have no choice other than taking the sea route and putting themselves in a very dangerous situation to enter Europe. It’s the only way they can flee, because we don’t allow legal passage, safe passage.

They are people who have no other place to go – most of them. Of course, there are different cases, but to have to put yourself in a situation of distress to initiate the obligation of rescue at sea, that is really perverse. It is a violation of the right to life because Europe is not providing an efficient and international search and rescue system despite years of having these crossings happen.

The situation is also difficult because we are working in a legal vacuum. There is a huge legal framework in terms of search and rescue, and for sure, each state has an obligation to rescue anyone found in distress at sea, no matter whether they are tourists, migrants or refugees. The problem is that there is no agreed definition of distress.

To the Greek Coast Guard, a rubber boat full of people who could potentially make it to shore is not a distress case, so they don’t need to assist. Actually, the Greek coast can be very treacherous, and we would assist boats in the Aegean to approach the rocky shoreline to ensure they had a safe passage. We have witnessed many incidents where the boat’s engine would stop or a tube deflate. It is important to be there on the spot, otherwise it’s too late


While on board you act as legal advisor for the Sea-Watch team. Why is this necessary?

My biggest job for the organization is to make sure that we stay on the safe side of the law and to train crews about the risks and responsibilities related to their engagement in rescue at sea. We are always being threatened with arrest for facilitating illegal immigration. The situation is sad, because instead of having support for humanitarian action at sea, we are facing a lot of issues. We have had to limit our actions in many cases, especially in the Aegean, because of this threat of being arrested.

At the same time, I understand that it is very easy for organizations like us to end up being part of the smuggling system, because we don’t have any boundaries. It would be very easy for us to establish contacts on the Turkish shore or the Libyan shore and get more information about the people who leave.

Then again, you never know who you are talking to. It might even be that you are actually becoming part of the smuggling system. We try to stay on the safe side, but it is tricky. There is a subtle different between helping people and becoming part of the business. We are on the edge.


There is resistance in some sections of European society to accepting migrants. Do you see this as justifiable?

At one shipwreck, I remember seeing a baby bottle full of milk, just floating there. That feels very wrong to me. I know it is a huge problem. Where are we going to put all the people that are coming? How are we going to integrate them? It is a very difficult task for Europe, but at the same time there is no choice.

As a free, democratic institution, we have to assist these people. It is an act of solidarity, of civilization. You cannot just shut the door to people that are fleeing what they are fleeing. As a European citizen, I do not accept that these people should be drowning literally before our eyes.

While being active in search and rescue is seen as being a “pull factor” that increases the rate of landing success, the reality is that these people are going to cross anyway.

My feeling is that this is just the start of the migration phenomenon, not the end. Most recently, we have started seeing people coming from Egypt – a trip that takes at least a week, so we are expecting the worst this summer.


What does the future hold for Sea-Watch?

 We will continue operating at least until the end of summer. Then we will be asking ourselves, what is the political sense of this, because, on one hand, it is important to have assets at sea to conduct rescues. On the other hand, our aim at the beginning was to be a provocation to the institutions of Europe. We are just European citizens, and we are rescuing people. We can do it, so you can do it – you have to do it!

What is happening, though, is that we are substituting ourselves for them. We have become part of a system that does not take responsibility. The question is, should we continue for ever, or at some point, should we stop and make that statement. That is a hard decision to make, because there are people in need of help.

 Thank-you Giorgia.

The HRAS Interview: Steve Trent, Co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF)

Steve Trent

Over fishing and Commonplace Violence in Thailand

“In all my experience, over two decades, I cannot think of situations that I’ve seen where extreme violence has been as commonplace as it is in Thailand,” says Steve Trent, co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), talking about Thailand’s seafood industry.

It’s an industry that he says stands out globally for its environmental and human rights abuses, and one, therefore, that if turned around, could set a valuable example for positive change across a wide range of industries throughout the world.

Trent points out that one United Nations survey found that 59 percent of seafarers surveyed had witnessed the murder of a crew member.

“All too often, vulnerable people have been trafficked on to the vessels, and many of them are actually being used as slaves. There’s no intention of paying them and no intention of releasing them. They are slaves in every sense of the word.”

Myo Min Naing, 21, is one victim in thousands. He was promised a good job with overtime pay at a pineapple factory in Thailand before being trafficked into the country. He was transported with five others in a marked police car, driven by men in plain clothes, before being forced onto a fishing vessel.

He was compelled to work on the boat for ten months without pay before he managed to escape. He and his fellow crewmembers suffered abuse and violence at the hands of the boat’s captain, including one attack that left him partially deaf: “I made a mistake by opening the box where the fish are stored and he hit me from behind. It was so hard that I was knocked unconscious, and he smashed my face against the ice.”

HRAS spoke to Trent about the issues and what the U.K.-based charity is doing to help people like Naing.

HRAS: The collaborations that have made the widespread use of slave labour possible span Thai society. How can it have reached such a level?

When we started to examine it, the Thai fishing industry was completely out of control. There was no coherent fisheries management regime, and that led to an explosion in the number of boats and therefore the capacity in the industry. This in turn led to the fishing down of the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand such that most of the high value species are gone.

The boats need to stay out longer, use more fuel and fish harder to catch a product that is diminishing all the time. This, therefore, means diminishing economic returns for the vessel operators. It is one of the primary motivations behind using bonded and slave labour.

The situation has reached the point where today, where if you took away that free or very cheap labour, many of those vessels that are operating quite simply wouldn’t be economic any more.

HRAS: How many slaves are there out on the boats?

From evidence obtained directly from our own investigations, we are sure its hundreds upon hundreds. By collective analysis, if you look at the United Nations survey, information from the Guardian, witness testimonies and other sources, you can see that it’s much larger numbers. There’s somewhere between 650,000 and 900,000 workers in the Thai seafood sector, and best estimates suggest that over 90 percent of them are migrant workers. You can say large numbers of those have been trafficked in, so you start to get an idea of the scale.

HRAS: EJF investigations have resulted in a number of reports and films that highlight the problems. What else have you been doing?

The recommendations we have made in the reports are not just a shopping list of ad-hoc nice to have ideas. They are finely tuned to the practical needs of Thailand, and we are always happy to provide precise detail and depth. So when we talk about vessel monitoring systems for example, I’ve had somebody in Bangkok sitting in the government command and control centre training people.

We are trying to deliver mechanisms that will enhance transparency and traceability. That’s the bedrock, because once you have that, then independent scrutiny can be applied and you have the ability to police change over time.

We have a fairly finely calibrated advocacy. We are not necessarily going out to huge numbers of individuals, but we try to talk to individuals and organizations that have specific points of influence within the sector. In Thailand, I’ve met personally with the deputy prime minister and other key ministers including the labour minister, foreign minister and agriculture ministry and the chief of the navy. That is the level at which we seek to engage and operate.

We work at comparable levels commercially in the Thai seafood industry’s major markets. The sustainable shrimp taskforce was originally set up at our request. We suggested the idea for the industry to get together and start addressing the issues that they had in their supply chain and the leverage they could bring by applying the pressure of their corporate dollars or their ability to change their sourcing and production methods.

HRAS: Thailand remains at the lowest level in the Trafficking in Persons reporting scheme, yet change is occurring slowly. What has been achieved to date?

We’ve now got a situation where the legal fundamentals are in place in Thailand to eradicate human trafficking. Over the last few years, Thailand has adopted a comprehensive range of fisheries and labour management laws.

Additionally, there’s been quite significant commercial pressure exerted through the diversion of investment that would arguably have gone to Thailand but has now gone to neighbouring states. That’s really significant, not because we want some sort of crude punitive punishment but because money talks. If people see money moving away, they realize that they have to act.

We have also seen a focus on reputation in Thailand. People often talk about Asian states and their concern for reputation, but in my experience, governments all over the world have a high regard for their reputation.

Big companies are also looking at their brand reputation and at protecting their market share, and they are asking: Do we really want to be associated with a product that is being produced by slaves? Almost universally the answer is “no”.

HRAS: EJF was founded in 2000. What prompted did you start it?

Protecting the environment is more than conservation. It is about equity, securing a fairer future and justice for those who need it most. When all the fish have been taken illegally, what happens to the coastal communities and all those people dependent on the resources?

When we set the organization up, I think it was true to say that there were very few organisations or even individuals that were explicitly linking environmental security and human rights, and we saw there was a very clear need.

At the time, there was a predominance of western organizations that would fly in to save the day so to speak but all too often they left nothing behind. There are amazing organisations out there, so I’m not being unduly critical. I’m just highlighting what we saw, and I think to achieve enduring change there is a very real need to localize the solutions to issues as well as bringing outside scrutiny and attention. One is not exclusive of the other.

HRAS: In many cases, you say, it has been hard to quantify success. What keeps you going?

The world has changed hugely over the past 15 years, and I’m a professional optimist. I believe in the ability to change and secure positive development. I’m also a passionate believer in the idea that it’s better to light a candle than to rage against the darkness.

I think small acts can add up to relatively grand change, so I’d much rather try and engage than sit back and bemoan the problems. Anybody who’s lived in the world of campaigning and advocacy in the human rights or environmental sectors knows how hard it is to secure change that is durable, but it is possible and it’s very motivating when you see it happen.

HRAS: There’s a shadow image to the successes and that is the simple question that you have to pose implicitly which is what would have happened had nobody tried anything?

In Europe, EJF is part of a collaboration with WWF, Oceana and the Pew Charitable Trusts tackling the E.U.’s illegal fishing problems. In the past, you have also collaborated with Greenpeace and Oxfam. What plans do you have for future collaborations?

We will maintain our investigations, and we are one of the few groups that conduct investigations at sea as well as on land. We’ll also maintain our high level advocacy at ministerial level and our delivery of appropriate solutions.

Because the organization is specifically set up such that it doesn’t need to be a brand in its own right, we didn’t want to tie our ability to operate to brand awareness, we are able to collaborate with organizations quite efficiently and effectively. I’m very keen on collaboration, because there’s too many people who think they have the answer and almost always, whilst you can play a part, you can’t deliver the whole, so working collectively and leveraging different assets and skills is a valuable thing.

EJF’s evidence of illegal fishing in West Africa has prompted arrests and million in fines levied against pirate fishing vessels. The charity has secured action from the U.S. Department of State towards halting human trafficking, and its investigative work into cotton in Uzbekistan led to one of the world’s most repressive governments signing U.N. conventions to end forced labour. EJF has also helped secure a global ban on a deadly pesticide. It has protected wildlife and wild places, from turtles in Liberia, mangrove forests in Brazil to wetlands in Cambodia.

HRAS looks forward to collaborating with EJF in the future. Thank-you, Steve.

The HRAS Interview: Dr Patricia Kailola, CEO of Pacific Dialogue, Fiji

patriciaTuna: Caught by Slaves and Canned by Slaves

Welcoming and warm-hearted, Fijians and other Pacific Islanders can be lured into the dark side of commercial tuna fishing. “Would you buy a can of tuna that you knew had been caught by slaves and canned by slaves?” asks Dr Patricia Kailola, CEO of Fiji-based NGO Pacific Dialogue Ltd.

HRAS spoke to Patricia to find out about the often-unreported abuses occurring on fishing vessels in the Pacific Ocean.


HRAS: What is happening to the Pacific islanders that are being exploited in the commercial tuna fishing industry?

Many of the problems we see mimic those reported in other fisheries, such as the South-east Asian long-haul fishery. Trickery, illegal contracts and debt bondage (where crew members are obliged to “pay off” the cost of their travel and papers) and non-payment of wages, are common.

On board, the men can be expected to work 18 hours or more a day. They may face beatings for not understanding instructions and monetary penalties for “transgressions” or for not following instructions to the satisfaction of ship officers.

Continue reading The HRAS Interview: Dr Patricia Kailola, CEO of Pacific Dialogue, Fiji

Welcome to ‘The HRAS Interview’

Basic CMYKHuman Rights at Sea (HRAS) is pleased to welcome you to the newest feature of the growing HRAS international platform; ‘The HRAS Interview‘.

This supporting site will provide the reader with an insight into the lives, actions and successes of individuals whose stories will inspire, challenge perceptions and who have positively contributed to the maritime environment in respect of the lives of seafarers, fishermen and their families.

We look forward to bringing you interesting and hard-hitting interviews that get to the heart of the matter and unlock the issues raised.