Cambodian Vessels: A Black Mark on European Seas

The growing storm around unseaworthy Cambodian ships plying the highseas blew a bit harder last week with the blacklisting of nine Cambodian-flagged vessels from European ports as the European Union moved to reduce the possibility of more disastrous oil spills in it waters.

A total of 65 sub-standard oil tankers, bulk carriers, chemical tankers and one passenger liner were placed on the blacklist by the EU’s executive commission.

The EU also proposed a total ban on the carriage of heavy oil fuel aboard single-hull tankers entering or leaving European ports, a moved prompted by the recent sinking of the single-hulled Prestige off the Spanish coast..

Hundreds of pristine beaches were blackened by tides of oily sludge and thousands of sea birds suffocated when the Bahamas-registered Prestige broke in half last month, spilling thousands of tons of the highly polluting heavy oil fuel into Spanish waters.

Much of the Prestige’s cargo of 77,000 metric tons of oil sank when the vessel disappeared into waters 3,500 meters deep off Spain’s Galicia region.

But the fuel continues to seep from the ship’s split hull, sending huge slicks with each new tide toward the coastal waters that once sustained Spanish fishing communities..

“Words are not enough,” said Loyola de Palacio, the EU Transport Commissioner in a statement released on Tuesday.

“It is necessary to act and apply the maritime safety measures in full. Safety is the responsibility of everyone, and strict application of all the measures is the only way of ensuring that substandard ships do not fall through the safety net,” she said.

Banning the 66 vessels from a total of 13 nations, all of which had been detained several times in European waters for maritime safety infractions, was the EU’s first step. Cambodian vessels ranked third on the list of most numerous offenders, the EU said.

Turkey took the lion’s share of the blacklist ,with 26 vessels banned from EU ports, while St Vincent & Grenadines took second place with 12 vessels and Cambodia coming up close behind with its nine vessels.

The blacklist was compiled as “the Commission hopes that operators will refrain from chartering substandard ships and that the owners and flag States of the ships in question will apply the tougher maritime safety standards straight away,” the EU said.

Each of the nine Cambodian vessels had been detained by EU port authorities between two and five times over the past three years, according to the statement, which ranked the performance of Cambodian-flagged ships under the title “very high risk.”

Amid mounting international criticism of Cambodia’s maritime safety record, the Cambodian ship registration authority was transferred in July from the privately-owned Cambodia Shipping Corp (CSC) to the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation.

The besieged Singapore-based CSC, which had privately administered ship registration since 1995, was placed at the center of a government investigation following the seizure in June by French commandos of cocaine onboard a Cambodian-registered-freighter-the “Winner.”

The drug bust, and dozens of other maritime incidents involving Cambodian-registered ships, has built to scathing international criticism of the CSC and Cambodia’s “flag of convenience.”

Calls mounted for tough action against CSC-a company critics said was more concerned with bolstering revenue than maritime safety.

“How many more people have to die in incidents involving Cambodian-flagged vessels, or its ships detained for illegal activities, before something is actually done about it?” Lloyds shipping intelligence service wrote in an opinion piece in July.

CSC’s launch of the world’s first Internet ship registration, introduced the problem of phantom ships being registered on-line, Lloyds said.

Cambodian-flagged ships accounted for 49-or 14.7 percent-of 332 port detentions in the first four months of this year, statistics from the Tokyo MOU port control authority in the Asia-Pacific region revealed. This represents a very high figure for Cambodia, a country whose flag is not in the world’s top 20 in terms of size, Lloyds said.

International law stipulates that all sea vessels must sail under the flag of a sovereign state. But ships registered under a flag of convenience, such as Cambodia, need no connection to the registering country and operate with little or no oversight by the registering authorities, critics claim.

Like offshore companies, flags of convenience have boomed in the past two decades as ship owners are drawn to register with countries where fees are low, tax liabilities relaxed or non-existent and their ships are free of many restrictive laws.

While official figures for the number of ships registered with the CSC hovered between 400 to 600, the actual number was twice that, according to US investigators and ministry officials.

But flag-of-convenience countries-whose vessels top the list of ships involved in incidents ranging from human smuggling to drug trafficking and arms shipments-are under scrutiny since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US and the so-called “war against terrorism.”

Fears that militant groups may use sea vessels to deliver crude weapons of mass destruction have prompted US involvement in efforts to pressure flag-of-convenience countries.

The Cambodian government reclaiming control over ship registration was recently followed by an announcements that the business would be put out to bid to professional maritime shipping companies.

Only merchant shippers with an untainted track record and experience need apply for the registry rights, but the successful candidates must open their business center in Cambodia and not offshore, the government said.

It’s as much about repairing Cambodia’s maritime name as continuing to reap the payback from the lucrative registration business, a government official said.

Bids for the Cambodian registry close on Monday. But with the amount of money involved in registration, some diplomats and Cambodian officials say they don’t expect much improvement in the quality of vessels that will fly the Cambodian flag in the future.

“The registry can be done well if the procedures and regulations are strict and technical tests are followed,” said Chan Dara, director of the merchant marine department at the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation.

However, the procedure for assessing the bid and choosing the new registrar company was outside his jurisdiction, Chan Dara said. “I really don’t know what is being suggested…. But usually when things change it is better than before,” he said.

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