Blue safe corridors
As the harvest season approaches, calls for safe maritime routes through the Black Sea from war-torn Ukraine have shifted in focus from the safety of seafarers to the supply of grain.
In the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the IMO, the International Chamber of Shipping and other major international maritime agencies called for an urgent 'blue safe maritime corridor' to be established to facilitate the evacuation of seafarers and ships from affected areas in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov — with good reason.
One week into the war, a Russian missile hit the 180m (590ft) bulk carrier M/V Banglar Samriddhi, destroying its bridge and killing its Bangladeshi third engineer, Hadisur Rahman.
At the time, 1,500 other seafarers aboard around 120 vessels were also trapped on their ships within the war zone, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation.
A concerted effort by seafarer unions, employers, ship managers and governments helped many mariners escape the fighting, with the number of Filipino seafarers trapped in the conflict, for example, dropping from around 500 in March to less than 90 one month later.
Hadisur Rahman, who was killed when a Russian missile hit the M/V Banglar Samriddhi
Today, an estimated 70 vessels from 16 countries remain stranded in Ukrainian ports, with their crews still under threat of attack while becoming increasingly low on vital supplies.
Ship movements are currently constricted by two major obstacles — the ongoing diplomatic failure to establish an agreement on safe maritime corridors and fields of floating, often untethered and drifting, sea mines that have been laid throughout much of the Black Sea.
According to the NATO Shipping Centre (NSC), the threat of collateral damage or direct hits on civilian merchant shipping within the War Risk Area of the Black Sea remains high.
The NCS is, therefore, urging masters to avoid floating objects and keep the forward parts of their ships clear of crew. Threats of GPS jamming, AIS spoofing, communications jamming, electronic interference and cyber-attacks are also considered to be high in the area.
With vital Ukrainian crops due to be harvested in the next few weeks, the UN is now trying to broker safe paths for the export of grain in order to avoid a potential global food crisis.
“While the establishment of maritime humanitarian corridors to evacuate seafarers trapped in Ukrainian ports seems to be the priority, the same legal regime would also apply to any safe maritime passage routes which may be used to resume Ukrainian exports,” points out Dr Reece Lewis, a lecturer in law at Cardiff University who recently advised the UK’s House of Lords during its investigation, published as a report in March, into whether the UN Conventions of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is fit for purpose in the 21st Century.
“There is no reason why a single internationally negotiated agreement between Ukraine and Russia cannot be used to establish safe maritime passage routes to address both of these crises. Internationally secured guarantees are likely to give seafarers greater confidence to use the routes — but it is still a conflict zone and, once again, seafarers are being asked to put themselves in harm’s way for the good of us all.”
Russia, meantime, has declared, unilaterally, a number of land and sea ‘humanitarian corridors’, including one in the Black Sea and another in the Sea of Azov — a move that’s being treated with caution and suspicion by Western observers.
“The unilateral nature of this declaration — considering Russia’s seeming disregard for international humanitarian law throughout the conflict so far — only furthers doubts about the effectiveness and safety of those routes,” suggests Lewis.
“There exists no settled definition of a ‘humanitarian corridor’ in international law, nor is there any positive law concerning their establishment. This means that within a proposed corridor and outside it, belligerent states are under a legal obligation to protect the civilian population — including seafarers — against the effects of hostilities.
“Russia declared Military Exclusion Zones in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, so it is under an obligation, in customary international law, to ensure the safe passage of neutral merchant vessels through these zones.”
The IMarEST, meanwhile, has ceased all financial transactions to and from Russia while the hostilities continue, and provides support to its members and marine professionals in Ukraine and the IMarEST Odessa Branch.
"Our thoughts are with the people of Ukraine during this time and we hope for a rapid resolution and a return to peace,” says Gwynne Lewis, IMarEST’s chief executive.
”We will continue to support and listen to the concerns of our members in Ukraine and across the globe, and provide ongoing assistance where possible."
The Guild of Benevolence of the IMarEST is an independent charity that provides assistance to those in need within the marine community and their dependents worldwide. The Guild has made a donation to assist the family of Md Hadisur Rahman who lost his life on board the M/V Banglar Samriddhi. If you would like to make a donation to the Guild, highlight an individual or family in need of assistance or would like to request assistance, please visit the IMarEST's Guild of Benevolence.