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Alex Tinsley’s seafarer client released from Indonesia – an illustrative case

Seafarer Siyaab Salam has been released from Indonesia after months held unreasonably in the aftermath of a maritime accident, in a case illustrating some little-known issues affecting seafarers.

Mr Salam was the Chief Office of the MT Aashi, a vessel which ran aground in February 2023 in poor weather conditions off Nias Island, Indonesia, spilling its cargo of bitumen. The Crew had to abandon ship on lifeboats. Indonesia – fairly – sought compensation from the vessel’s owner for the damage caused. It also – unfairly – held Mr Salam for many months after having concluded investigations without further action in his regard. The case raised alarm among the Indian Directorate General of Shipping, the All India Seafarers Union, and the shipping press (see reporting here / images below).

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Alex Tinsley, who specialises in the interplay of the law of the sea and international human rights, intervened on Salam’s behalf with three UN Special Rapporteurs and the International Maritime Organization (“IMO”) (see the record on the IMO seafarer abandonment database here).

It was alleged that Indonesia’s conduct was contrary to the IMO Fair Treatment Guidelines, which are founded on the principle that seafarers should not “held hostage pending resolution of a financial dispute”. That phrase recognises the little-known phenomenon of seafarers being held unfairly in the wake of maritime accidents as a means of leverage in disputes with ship-owning entities about compensation, clean-up and salvage. The Fair Treatment Guidelines emphasise speedy resolution of cases to avoid keeping seafarers, and their families, in protracted limbo and distress with no income.

The IMO – recently criticised by the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics & Human Rights for having something of a blind spot with regard to human rights issues (see here §§5-6) – in this case promptly raised the Fair Treatment concerns with Indonesia. After months of concerted pressure from different actors, including the Indian Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia finally gave in and released Mr Salam.

This case illustrates one of the issues affecting seafarers, a vulnerable and invisible group working in dangerous conditions, in complex legal environments with powerful corporate and governmental actors involved. It also illustrates the lengths to which seafarers, their unions and/or ship-owners have to go to secure remedies when states lie beyond the reach of the treaty human rights mechanisms. 

The case finally illustrates the challenge for the IMO in matters like this. It sets industry-specific standards, like the Fair Treatment Guidelines and Abandonment Guidelines (which deal with situations where ship-owners leave seafarers stranded overseas without pay). However, it is short of means to enforce them – try as it might to raise the issues with states as it did here. One area it might look at in pursuit of stronger human rights credentials is a complaints mechanism with clearer remedies (e.g. a UN-style working group which could issue opinions with recommendations to help resolve cases).