Concern For Seafarers During Pandemic Sparks New Initiatives In Japanese Law School

Professor Mariko Kawano’s interest in international law has always included the rights of individuals, but the plight of seafarers during the COVID-19 pandemic has led her to increase her engagement and build more opportunities for her students to be involved in understanding human rights at sea.

As a Professor of International Law at Wasada University in Tokyo, Ms Kawano is part of a far-reaching university community that is focused on both research and education. The university has academic exchange agreements with over 850 institutions in 93 countries and regions around the world, and hosts over 1,000 international researchers each year.

The School of Law was established with the founding of the university in 1882, and its strong identity is built on principles designed to develop global leaders that contribute to human happiness and global peace. This heritage is coupled with a strategic plan leading up to its 150th anniversary in 2032 which is committed to research, practical experience and teaching. Many alumni are active as judges, prosecutors, advocates and academics, and students are drawn from all over Japan, and beyond.

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Ms Kawano has published extensively in both Japanese, English, and French and her academic activities include participation in many Japanese and international law associations and commissions. She has contributed to clarifying the role of judicial procedures for settling international disputes in the Pacific region, to the understanding of legal problems when fighting piracy and to the application of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, amongst many other contributions.

“I have also been interested in the roles of ‘persons’ in the international legal system. Although international law was traditionally considered to regulate only inter-State relations, legal rules regulating non-State actors, including international human rights law, have now become even more important to the international community.”

In March this year, Ms Kawano hosted a series of lectures under the title of “Human Rights at Sea with and after COVID-19” with financial assistance for the series provided by the Suenobu Foundation. The online event facilitated the exchange of views between European and Asian experts and a recognition of common concerns. The lecturers included academic support from Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) Trustee Professor Steven Haines and HRAS Advisory Board Members Professor Irini Papanicolopulu, Dr. Sofia Galani and Professor Anna Petrig, alongside Professor Seline Trevisanut of Utrecht University.

Ms Kawano became interested in the activities of the HRAS charity after learning of the Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea that the charity developed. She is now very interested in the implementation of international rules and the concepts of arbitration developed by the charity. There is a need to discuss the nature and contents of the rights to be protected in order to establish substantive rules, she says. There is also a need for the development of procedural rules to establish the regimes for the implementation of those rules.

Her work in recent years has led to an increasing focus on the rights of all people at sea. She has worked with the Ministry of Land and Transport on changes in working conditions for seafarers. As an island country, Japan’s industry cannot function properly without domestic maritime transportation. However, the shortage of seafarers has been a serious concern, and the Bureau for Maritime Affairs of the Ministry organized special sub-committees to tackle the issues.

“I have noted a gradual but fundamental change in the structure of the international legal system, particularly since the turn of the century. It seems to me that the arguments supporting human rights at sea are a reflection of such a structural change, and the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that the protection of human rights at sea is even more pressing. Thus, I decided to organize the series of lectures.”

As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak on the Diamond Princess, Ms Kawano has been involved with the Japanese government’s efforts to formulate new guidelines to ensure the safety and credibility of Japan’s domestic cruise industry. This has also led to the development of proposals for the revitalization of the international cruise industry.

“Through my experience working on these projects, I have noted the importance of measures that protect passengers and crews during infectious disease pandemics. It is necessary to be prepared for a future pandemic, and I think that this may be a new challenge for the shipping industry after COVID-19.”

More generally, Ms Kawano sees the need for a mechanism to ensure the cooperation of all stakeholders involved in human rights at sea. While international legal rules to protect human rights are based on the universal values commonly shared by the international community, the social values of each State vary significantly, and the effective implementation of international legal rules cannot be realized without considering those differences among States, she says. International collaboration on human rights issues may contribute to the harmonization of these different domestic values and systems.

“International cooperation at various levels, universal, regional and sub-regional, plays an essential role in realizing the effective protection of the human rights at sea. However, international cooperation between/among States cannot cover everything for their implementation. Coordination by NGOs and the involvement of stakeholders is substantive to implementation of those legal rules.”

Ms Kawano has many students who are interested in human rights issues. However, most of them have been more concerned with issues on land, including the situations in Myanmar, Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region. This is partly the result of being not so well informed about the issue of human rights at sea, something that the lecture series helped to rectify.

Waseda University has recently enhanced its efforts to internationalize its research and education even further, and Ms Kawano continues to raise awareness of human rights at sea and the need for the development of legal rules protecting those rights as a priority for the international community.

“In the Graduate School of Law, I teach international law of the sea and the settlement of disputes concerning the law of the sea in English and international environmental law and international relations in Japanese. In these courses, I refer to the issues relating to human rights at sea. I also conduct the research in the field of the law of the sea relating the human rights at sea. I hope that more students will be interested in this subject.”


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