European ships exported outside the EU for recycling are frequently run aground, mainly in countries in South Asia. Hazardous working conditions and the release of toxic materials are among the human rights abuses that have been reported. A new EU ship recycling law addresses these in part but EU member states must strengthen the legislation further to end foreign human rights abuses by its shipping and other industries.

 

There is no shortage of documentation about human rights abuses linked to the export of European ships for recycling. Mostly in South Asia, European-of-life ships are run aground and dismantled in local communities in appallingly hazardous conditions. In addition to the physical hazards of essentially breaking apart these enormous ships by hand, large volumes of toxic chemicals are released into the air, water and soil during the dismantling process, poisoning both workers and the broader community. Some of these pollutants will eventually find their way back to Europe.

However, the new EU legislation still requires additional measures to ensure that loopholes are not exploited by the European shipping industry to continue the so-called beaching practice.

The EU’s new legislation for ship recycling contains certain provisions to help ensure safe and clean practices. However, the new EU legislation still requires additional measures to ensure that loopholes are not exploited by the European shipping industry to continue the so-called beaching practice. EU member states must take further steps to strengthen the legislation to end foreign human rights abuses by its shipping industry.

Regular and systematic human rights abuses by many of the world’s largest ship-owners due to the dismantling of end-of-life ships include the rights to life, to the highest attainable standard of health, to bodily integrity, to safe food and water, to adequate housing, and to safe and healthy working conditions, among others. Child rights abuses are grave, with abject failures regarding child labour in South Asian ship-breaking yards, one of the worst forms of child labour, and the poisoning of children in local communities through chronic exposure to contamination. This type of ship-breaking is discrimination in practice, where powerful actors are abusing the rights of the world’s weakest communities simply for profit.

Child rights abuses are grave, with abject failures regarding child labour in South Asian ship-breaking yards, one of the worst forms of child labour, and the poisoning of children in local communities through chronic exposure to contamination.

The EU must take adequate steps to prevent and redress foreign abuses linked to the activities of businesses in their jurisdiction. The EU and its member states have an extraterritorial obligation to protect in precisely such circumstances, where businesses in their jurisdiction cause, contribute to or are linked to human rights abuses outside their territories. Various international human rights experts have explained the sources and function of extraterritorial obligations and have clarified their content and scope. This can be seen, for example, in General Comment no. 24 of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

 

Indeed, there is also a duty on states with these deadly ship-breaking yards to protect against such abuses, as well as states hosting companies that enable the swapping of a ship’s flag from an EU state to another to circumvent EU regulatory requirements. However, this does not absolve the EU of its obligation to protect from human rights abuses abroad by the European shipping industry.

However, this does not absolve the EU of its obligation to protect from human rights abuses abroad by the European shipping industry.

It must be noted that the problem of toxic exports is not simply one of end-of-life ships or other types of hazardous and non-hazardous waste. The problem of EU businesses abusing human rights abroad through the export of toxic threats extends to supply chain segments, dangerous pesticides and industrial chemicals and polluting industries to developing countries. For example, the continued practice of manufacturing hazardous pesticides for export despite EU bans or other prohibitions from use within the EU is deeply problematic, requiring strong justification as to why such practices are not discriminatory. The traceability of toxic threats to human rights is crucial but is unfortunately missing in most European supply and value chains with regard to the production, use, release and disposal of toxic chemicals.

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The EU should extend its best- in-class protection of human rights from toxic threats at home to the operations of its businesses abroad. Some EU member states, such as France, have made significant progress nationally in terms of protecting against human rights’ abuses by domestic businesses outside their territory. This is very much welcome but far more is needed. The EU must take adequate steps to prevent and redress foreign abuses linked to the activities of businesses in their jurisdiction, including through the export of toxic threats to human rights.

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