By Michael Grey*
There probably will not be that many people around who can recall the summer of 1984, when there was an important conference in Geneva to consider the problems of flags of convenience (FOC), or open registers, as we are now enjoined to call them. The meeting, held in the lofty halls of the Palais de Nations, was, among other things, an attempt to properly clarify whether there should be a “genuine link” between a ship and the place of registry painted on its stern.
I have fond memories of the event, as I was reporting for a somewhat lean organisation at the time and living in a tent on the shores of the lake, (albeit in a fairly luxurious campsite), from where, to the amazement of fellow campers, I would set off in my suit to the railway station each morning. The event itself, held over nearly three weeks, could not, from the standpoint of those wishing to circumscribe FOC operations, be counted a success. Ferocious efforts by the industry, which wished to maintain at least the freedom to register their ships anywhere on earth (possibly even the moon), ensured that it was no more than a tidying up operation, despite the amazing oratory and vast numbers of papers.
I was reminded of this somewhat intense exposure to the arguments around FOCs reading the Nautilus Telegraph, which pointed out that the issue had been debated at this year’s TUC Congress. It also reminded us that it was the 75th anniversary of the first FOC campaign by the International Transport Workers’ Federation., which really was before my time.
It might be suggested that the problems of bad behaviour by dodgy flags registering unsafe ships and exploited seafarers have been mitigated by a range of associated, but not necessarily direct constraints over the years. Port state control brought in a major oversight of ship safety and condition, while everything from ITF inspectors in ports to the public rating of flag state performance by the US, Europe and the various MOUs has been an incentive for good performance and the opposite for those operating marginal tonnage. The International Chamber of Shipping’s annual survey of flag state performance is scrutinised by charterers and owners alike. So far so good.
You can argue that open registers, some of which work hard to maintain the quality of the ships on their books are often better custodians of safety and standards than many other flags. Where this argument falls down, however, is in conditions where law and order break down and their inability to enforce anything very much becomes obvious. After all, why should navies, paid for by taxpayers, be employed to protect navigational freedoms for those owners who feel no obligation to pay taxes?
Tankers carrying sanctioned oil out of Russia
And while the status quo on FOCs seemed to be motoring on over the decades, the recent global instabilities, along with the emergence of the huge fleet of “dark” tankers carrying sanctioned oil out of Russia, has thrown ship registration into sharp focus. In particular, it has reminded us of the cavalier fashion in which these ships are changing owners and flags at the drop of a hat, without any pretence of inspections or surveillance by emergent states, most of which have not the slightest experience or competence in the requirements of a ship register, operating very large ships, carrying enormous quantities of pollutants.
These ships, of mystery ownership, appear as a law unto themselves, operating with insurance that is non-existent or of doubtful pedigree; the ships in the autumn of their lives (to put it politely). They carry out ship-to-ship oil transfers without proper supervision by coastal states, and other risky activities. Just recently, two large tankers were arrested for carrying out an unauthorised STS operation in Malaysian waters and when apprehended, refusing to let the authorities of the coastal state on board requiring military intervention.
There has been an increase in casualties, and if one considers the reputational damage being done to a tanker sector that has long been a top performer in international safety and standards, there must be widespread concern for the image of the shipping industry in general. A major accident involving one of this dark fleet and all the accusations about the “wild west” of transport and the allegedly lawless world of international shipping will be given front page publicity.
Should you have 300,000dwt tankers registered in states which could just about summon the expertise to register a paragraph coaster? The fact that this is now so widespread, with the scandal of this huge dark fleet, perhaps ought to be telling us that the liberal interpretation of a genuine link between ship and flag really needs a 21st century update. Sadly, my tent has been sold.
(Photo from vesseltracker.com shows the Gatik-managed Galatia tanker that has been detained in the Port of Antwerp since last July due to 22 identified technical defects. It is alleged to be part of a dark fleet that maintains Russian oil exports.)
*Michael Grey is former editor of Lloyd’s List. This column is published with the kind permission of The Maritime Advocate.