How slavery and murder goes unpunished on the high seas

The global economy and our daily lives have become increasingly dependent on shipping, as millions of ships carry roughly 90 percent of the world's goods. But we know little of the crime and lawlessness that takes place at sea. Ian Urbina of The New York Times joins William Brangham to discuss cases of murder, enslavement and pollution and why little can be done to stop it.

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    Now a look at some uncharted waters and the dangers faced by those out at sea.

    William Brangham reports.

  • And a warning:

    The story contains some graphic images.


    It's easy to overlook just how dependent our lives and the entire global economy have become on shipping and the seas.

    Today, several million ships carry roughly 90 percent of the world's goods. But a New York Times series shows how little we know about the lawless seas. Migrants, stowaways and fishermen disappear, often killed in accidents, or worse. There's evidence of murders taking place offshore.

    And tens of thousands of workers are essentially enslaved each year. All the while, international maritime law seems wholly inadequate and few authorities ever step in.

    Ian Urbina reported this series, and he joins me now.

    Ian, welcome.

  • IAN URBINA, The New York Times:



    In the first part of your series, you talk about a particular ship, the Dona Liberta. And you document a whole manner of crimes, terrible treatment of its crew, throwing stowaways overboard, dumping oily residue into the water. You're able to name the owner of the ship, but yet nothing seems to be done about that.

    Why is that?


    Number one, a lot of these companies are essentially P.O. boxes, and they're sort of shells over shells over shells.

    And that was the case here. So, just pinning down the owning company was tough. But, secondly, you have a boat that has maybe 10 different nationalities, in terms of the crew, the captain from yet another nation. The company that owns it is the third nation, and it's flagged to a fourth nation, and it's passing through international waters.

    So, even figuring out who would prosecute or investigate a crime is tough. And then the last part is there is really no one wanting to investigate these matters. When crimes occur, it's usually against crew or the environment. And the crew are typically from poor countries and those countries don't have the wherewithal to prosecute.


    Is there a governing body or an organization that is supposed to have jurisdiction in these matters?


    The flag that a ship flies is ultimately the country that should take responsibility.

    But those flags are businesses. And they don't have enforcement wings. They don't have police. They don't have investigators. And they don't have much incentive really to investigate their clients. There are overarching bodies, like at the U.N., the International Maritime Organization, but, again, it's not an enforcement agency, so complaints can be filed with it, but they usually sit there on record.


    You document in your series some — the conditions for fishing boat workers, and the way you describe it is that many of these workers are, in essence, slaves. Who are these men and how did they end up in the circumstances that they're in?


    So, that's a story that we focused on the South China Sea, where this problem is most acute.

    Most of these vessels that we looked at were Thai-flagged trawlers or fishing vessels. They are smaller boats. And the crews predominantly come from Laos, Cambodia. And there are many Burmese. And they are trafficked into the country across the border illegally, oftentimes under the pretense that they are going to get a job in construction or some land-based job.

    Next thing they know, they are at the port, and they are being sort of shuttled onto a ship. And the traffickers sells them essentially to the boat captain. And they are indentured on the boat and are supposed to work until their debt is cleared. But once you get out to sea, it's not a realm of bookkeeping and exact accounts.


    You can't just get off.


    Right, so they stay there.


    In your series, you document a horrible incident that happened, I believe it was in the Indian Ocean, of this very graphic cell phone video of men being shot in the water.

    Again, this is pretty clear evidence of a graphic, horrible crime. And yet no one has been held to account for this. How do you explain that?


    It's pretty amazing.

    So, this was a cell phone video that was found. And it shows a clear case of murder. There are four men floating in the water. And over 10 minutes, they are shot. And at the end of the video, the most striking part is that those involved in the shooting pose for selfies.


    They have just shot men to death in the water, and then here they are taking selfies of themselves.


    And the video ends up on the Internet. And so the question is, how is it possible, with this much evidence? There were four large tuna long-line vessels in the area, so that means there are dozens of witnesses, a video on the Internet with the culprits.

    And — but it gets to the heart of the issue that you raised before. There is no interested party that has the wherewithal to prosecute or investigate. And, at the end of the day, the seas are this sprawling space. And so pinning down when and where something occurs out there, when there are so few other people that weren't party to the crime, is difficult


    The environmental crimes that you document in this series are also quite stark.

  • You write:

    "Ships intentionally dump more engine oil and sludge Into the oceans in the span of three years than that spilled in the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez accidents combined, ocean researchers say, and emit huge amounts of certain air pollutants, far more than all the world's cars."

    What is being done to combat those types of crimes?


    Not a whole lot, again, because, while there are rules on the books, rules are only as good as their enforcement.

    And that's where the high seas become especially difficult, because it's super costly to put boats on the water. It's such a huge space to patrol. And no nation has the jurisdiction to do that on the high seas, because it belongs to everyone and no one. So there are strong rules on the books prevent — forbidding that kind of behavior, but there is no one out there to stop it.


    Ian Urbina of The New York Times, thank you very much.


    Thank you.

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