The fourth in a series of papers providing an overview of topical shipping issues. Future articles will cover immigration issues in the Mediterranean and e-navigation.
A document providing proof of personal identity is a double-edged sword. Whilst it can be useful in establishing certain entitlements, it is often demonised by civil libertarians as a symbol of a surveillance society. Regrettably the issue of identity documents for seafarers has become a case in point. The nature of a seafarer’s employment requires him or her to travel to whichever countries their ship may visit. Hence a document identifying its holder as a seafarer should be an essential item guaranteeing preferential treatment by immigration authorities, in order that they can carry out their duties with a minimum of interference. Notwithstanding the increasing importance of international seaborne trade, international agreement on a standard document for seafarers continues to prove elusive.
Back in 1958, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the first international convention providing for seafarer identity documents (SIDs). A country that ratified the convention was required to issue a SID to any or its nationals who were seafarers, provided the seafarer requested one. It was also entitled – if it so chose – to provide SIDs to any foreign national seafarer who was serving on a vessel flying its flag, or registered with an employment office within its territory.
The key benefit for the holder of a SID was the privileges that it afforded when visiting foreign countries as a member of a ship’s crew. Ratifying countries consented to permit holders to take shore leave when arriving by ship at their ports. Whilst no mention of visas was made in the convention, the idea was that visas should not be needed. Coming at a time when unloading a ship frequently took days if not weeks, the right to shore leave was held dear by seafarers.
Similarly, countries were required, in principle, to allow SID holders to enter their territory to join a ship or be repatriated. The increasing availability of commercial air travel enabled crews to be relieved mid-voyage, hence a document that provided a right of entry into an overseas country was a significant boon for seafarers and shipowners alike. The SIDs were required to be designed in a simple manner and made of durable material – beyond which each country was at liberty to adopt its own design. The convention proved popular, entering into force in 1961 and attracting 64 ratifications.
The convention was revisited following the tragic events of 11 September 2001. Under pressure from the US, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) rapidly developed the International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) Code and consideration was given to the question of identity documents for seafarers in this context. The ILO was asked to revise its convention on SIDs with a focus on developing a standardised document incorporating modern security features. If the status of the SID as a document facilitating seafarer movement were to be preserved, it would, in future, come at a price.
Uniquely, the ILO undertook its revision in one sitting of its General Conference, in June 2003. Achieving a consensus amongst governments, unions and shipowner representatives proved to be very difficult and the resultant instrument represented an uneasy compromise. Agreement was reached on a uniform SID with security features that were intended to be capable of being read electronically. However the chosen technology – a two-dimensional representation of the holder’s fingerprint, stored in a barcode – was already outdated.
There was also heated debate over the rights that the holder would enjoy. Several countries were unwilling to provide assurances that seafarers possessing the new SID would be permitted to take shore leave without visas – which brought them into conflict with the seafarers’ unions. Nevertheless the convention, known as ILO 185, was adopted and has been ratified by 30 countries.
Not all of the ratifying countries are issuing the new SIDs and mechanisms for facilitating the movement of seafarers holding the new cards have not been established. The problems stem largely from concerns about the scale of the investment needed to purchase equipment capable of producing the cards and installing card readers at entry points into countries used by seafarers. The Philippines has some 300,000 seafarers but even this number is considered too small to justify the kind of investment needed to implement an effective system. Meanwhile, many countries have invested in contactless chip technology for passports which can be read automatically, as witnessed by the growth of e-passport gates at many airports. There is a general reluctance to commit funds to the production of cards for seafarers that use obsolescent biometrics. The original convention continues to be observed by over 50 countries, despite having been closed to new ratifications since ILO 185 entered into force.
More than ten years have now elapsed since the adoption of ILO 185 and even the most optimistic observer would be hard-pressed to disagree that it has failed to achieve its objectives. The US, which was the main driver behind the revision, has shown no interest. The UK is amongst several major shipping nations that are supportive in principle but baulk at the expense involved and the value of the new-fangled SIDs.
The ILO convened a meeting in February 2015 to seek to identify cost-effective technical and administrative measures aimed at overcoming the obstacles to ratification and implementation. Several countries called for changes to the specification of SIDs to bring them into line with the technology used for e-passports. A proposal made by the UK and other Governments that ratifying states could insert a secure sticker into the passport of a seafarer indicating that the holder is a seafarer was firmly rejected by the seafarers’ representatives, who insisted that the SID must remain a separate, stand-alone document.
Other countries that had ratified the convention complained that the investment that they had made in implementing its provisions and issuing SIDs would be wasted. The Government of the Russian Federation even offered its card-producing software to other countries free of charge, although no other states showed interest in taking up the offer.
The meeting called upon the ILO to revise the annexes of Convention 185, changing the biometric to a facial image stored in a contactless chip, in line with ICAO document 9303. This would mean that national electronic databases would be required to contain only the public keys required to verify the digital signatures defined in ICAO 9303. Meanwhile, SID issuers were requested to work with the e-passport issuers in their respective countries, in order to share the same certificate authority to manage the signing of the e-passport and the SID. This would reduce considerably the costs of introducing the new SID.
The subject will be considered again at the ILO early in 2016, when these revisions will be considered for adoption. However, no government was willing to make any firm commitments to ratify the Convention following the proposed revision. Concerns remain in respect of the costs of the system and whether the new SIDs will be accepted by the world’s principal trading and transit states for the purposes for which they were intended.
It is unlikely that ILO 185 will achieve any measure of success unless a consensus as to the primary purpose of the SID, particularly between governments and seafarers’ representatives, can be re-established. That purpose is to remove obstacles to the rapid movement of seafarers to join and be repatriated from their ships and to ensure that they are able to enjoy shore leave as required by the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC). For the time being, unfortunately, they are being seen as a pointless expense that achieves nothing for the very occupational group it was intended to help.