The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is the global authority on the safety, security and environmental performance of international shipping and is a specialised agency of the United Nations.

Despite there being an organisation with the remit to oversee the international shipping industry, the issue of protection from crime and management of crime when it occurs, appears to be absent from their agenda. There are continuous serious cases where passengers go missing off ships, serious sexual assaults occur and investigations are not carried out in a satisfactory manner, crime scenes are not secured and there are no appropriately trained victim support staff available to victims whilst the ship is at sea.

It is quite extraordinary that with almost 25 millionpassengers sailing on cruise ships each year (2016) the criminal jurisdiction lies solely with the police force in the country the ship is flagged, which could be thousands of miles from the ship. Those responsible to protect and support passengers on board have little training, no ability to arrest and interrogate, and no legal basis to take the action that would be automatic on land. The sad and frankly unacceptable result of cruise ships sailing under ‘flags of convenience’ is passengers are dying and those affected by crime are not receiving the support and, ultimately, the justice they deserve.

Criminal jurisdiction is with the state in which the ship is registered, often a small country such as Panama or the Bahamas. Once the ship leaves the territory of the country, usually 12 miles from the coast, the ship enters international waters; responsibility to investigate a crime then lies with the flagged country. These small states do not have the resources to effectively investigate a crime that has occurred on a ship and are likely to be situated thousands of miles away from where the incident took place. For example, the Bahamian police barely have sufficient resources to deal with crime on their own islands – an archipelago of over 700 Islands – let alone investigating crimes taking place on board cruise ships.

You are at the mercy of that country’s laws and all investigations and criminal prosecutions will be dealt with by that state. Consistent, professional, victim focused investigation and support to those affected by cruise ship crime cannot be guaranteed when it is investigated by a small police force based thousands of miles away and with minimal resources.

We must also look at other comparisons, for example crime statistics in the US (latest statistics – 2015). The homicide rate is 4.9 per 100,000, the rape rate is 39 per 100,000, and aggravated assault is 238 per 100,000. In 2016, there were 13.21 million cruise ship passengers from North America. If these crime statistics correlated directly with cruise ship passenger numbers, there could be 647 murders, 5,152 rapes, and 31,440 cases of aggravated assault in the US cruise ship population in one year.

The cruise ship industry and the IMO urgently need to acknowledge that much more needs to be done. It is astounding that the IMO is not being held accountable for neglecting to enforce international conventions laid out to protect those at sea. Some crimes are argued to be more prevalent at sea than on land – sexual assault has been said to be more than 50% more likely to occur on cruise ships than on land, according to Ross Klein[1]. Moreover, research heard at a Congressional hearing in 2013 found that over 30% of sexual assaults on cruise ships involved a minor, substantiating that many victims are especially vulnerable because of their young age and need to receive a high level of professional support and care. Without the correct level of training, which is not a prerequisite for the majority of cruise ship staff, how can victims receive the support and care that they need?

The training provided to staff is primarily geared towards how to respond to a major incidents or disasters, not how to support victims of crime. Victims, particularly victims of sexual violence, are also likely to feel very vulnerable being confined to a ship with their perpetrator; with a strong possibility of intimidation. These figures alone should bring the industry under scrutiny. Why isn’t the IMO doing just that?

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) lays down the law and order in the world’s oceans and seas and governs the rules of all uses of the oceans and their resources. Article 94 of UNCLOS states that flag states ‘shall effectively exercise its jurisdiction and control in administrative, technical and social matters over ships flying its flag’. Not only this, but Section 3b of Article 94 of UNCLOS establishes that flag states must ensure safety in regard to ‘the manning of ships, labour conditions and the training of crews, taking into account the applicable international instruments’. Although it does not go into detail upon the level of safety, there is clear evidence to suggest that the safety on board cruise ships is not upheld to a satisfactory level and there are, indeed, pressing issues that need to be addressed and resolved as a matter of urgency.

Flags of convenience offer extensive issues from their pure existence, however a reversal to registration at their home countries seems implausible. The most appropriate course of action instead would be to ensure that maritime conventions are abided by and are fully enforced. However, UNCLOS is being ignored by the flag states and the cruise industry. There is clearly a conflict of interest between the safety and support of passengers and the monetary attributes associated with the cruise industry. Let’s say legislation is enforced to require cruise ships to provide extensive training to support victims of cruise ship crime, the Marine Minister of a given flag state may be approached by a cruise ship owner, to which he may state to the Minister that he will simply change their registered flag to a state that does not impose such requirements.

The IMO has been ineffective in enforcing the rules sanctioned by UNCLOS and this is a great cause for concern. The implementation of UNCLOS by flag states is unofficially overseen by the IMO. The convention refers to the ‘competent international organisation’ as the authority that administers matters related to maritime safety; thus making the IMO the provisional bearer of the duty to see that flag states comply with UNCLOS rules and regulations. Though there still appears to be a failure by the IMO to practically invoke the Sections laid out in Article 94. The cruise industry, as well as the UK government, is fully aware that there is a critical issue with the safety situation on board cruise ships, and it is deplorable that there isn’t anything being done to scrutinise the IMO. With monetary factors overbearing the regulations on safety, we need to look at the ways in which we can bring accountability to the IMO and bring forth real change. It should be recommended that states who do not have the proper resources to comply with UNCLOS should not be allowed to register as flagged ships.

Recently, there has been a change in US law which now requires the FBI to investigate crimes committed against US citizens on cruise ships that leave or enter US ports. An agent or victim specialist will engage with the victims directly and determine who is most appropriate to make an outreach visit to meet the ship once it docks back in the US. This is a progressive model which has great promise to better protect victims of cruise ship crime. If the UK could replicate similar legislation it would greatly advance how cruise ship crimes are dealt with. This, alongside a major increase in tailored training for the staff onboard ships, could lead to addressing a major problem that has existed for many decades. Although the UK does not have a national force like the FBI, the Met could take the lead on a model like this, much like they do with terrorism.

This does not, however, allow the FBI to board the ship during a voyage to start an investigation. It needs to be noted that, under UNCLOS (Article 27), such investigations can only take place with complete agreement from the flag state – without this, investigative officials will not have the power to investigate, call on foreign nationals to give evidence or make arrests.

Despite the IMO providing guidance, rules and regulations for the Marine Industry, there are issues in how the documents are worded, and even more dilemmas in the fact that they do not provide effective resolutions to safety concerns. In the guidelines on the ‘Preservation and Collection of Evidence Following an Allegation of Serious Crime…’, there are a multitude of problematic clauses that must be analysed. Take the following statement as an example:

‘It is recognized that the master is not a professional crime-scene investigator and that crew and resources to preserve and collect evidence may be limited depending on the vessel type.’

The problem is stark. Yet the IMO are eluding the difficult questions that need to be addressed. Why isn’t there a trained crime-scene investigator on board cruise ships? Many cruise ships are the size of small towns and there is a duty to the passengers for there to be trained personnel at hand to professionally investigate a crime; not only this, but they should be liable for any neglect or omissions that hamper an investigation. Secondly, should there not be a requirement for seafaring vessels to have the correct resources to preserve and collect evidence?

There are also reports of cruise staff contaminating or destroying evidence before it can be examined by a professional. This would be a clear breach of legal duty in many countries, though no organisation is being held accountable for such neglect. It is because of this that there is a necessity for more regulation and enforced legislation to ensure staff are equipped with the knowledge and resources to best support any incident on board a vessel. Why aren’t the experts placed to inform the IMO highlighting the bleak outlook of safety regulation?

Cruise Lines International Association

The IMO has Committees and Sub-Committees which are assisted by external organisations to aid the development and implementation of their regulations. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) is a consultative NGO for the IMO and participates in IMO Committees and Sub-Committees with the stated aim to progress maritime safety. Yet, over the past ten years CLIA have been subject to eight congressional hearings in both the House and the Senate in the US in regard to safety concerns.

CLIA represents the cruise ship companies at the IMO and seemingly does not concern themselves with the plight of passengers who are so frequently victims of serious crimes on board their ships. Profits appear to be trumping safety. It is essential that the IMO opens its doors to organisations that represent the safety of passengers and seafarers, and not only those that participate to maintain the status quo.

The IMO should be held accountable by omission for the incidents that occur on board cruise ships and pressure must mount to ensure that it delivers much higher standards of protection from crime and investigations of crime on cruise ships. It is a tragedy that the profits of cruise ship companies are being put before the lives and welfare of their passengers. There needs to be a call to action for informed, independent organisations such as ‘International Cruise Victims’ to be given observer status at the IMO to ensure that the bereaved and survivors of cruise ship crime have a voice. The cruise industry needs to begin to acknowledge and address what is a litany of often unreported tragedies occurring every day on board cruise ships. Then, and only then, are we likely to see change.

[1] Klein, R., Sex at Sea: Sexual Crimes Aboard Cruise Ships, Tourism in Marine Environments, Volume 7, Number 2, 2011