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        Responsibilities of the Flag State…

      At the end of March 2004, more than four years after the disaster, the French judge Dominique de Talancé has closed the "ERIKA" file accusing 19 different entities! It's a record: she combed very wide and the list is long, starting with the Ship's Captain to the Coastal state, including the ship owner, classification society etc.
In this she is completely right as the case of the "ERIKA" and that of the "PRESTIGE" shows that the whole maritime transport chain is implicated in these two catastrophes. Of course with different degrees of responsibility, however all 19 accused entities have for the moment been cited as having comparatively the same level of culpability: it will be for the courts to define who is at fault and who is to be exonerated.

In this there is a great improvement with respect to past practices. Some will remember the dramatic disaster in March 1980 of the old Malagasy tanker "Tanio" loaded with 20,000 tons of the same Heavy Fuel n°2, who broke in two and sunk in stormy weather off the French coast in the English Channel . It was a very similar case, except that eight sailors lost their lives in that catastrophe. That affair was not judged in the same manner, was it because there were a lot of French interests at stake?

But coming back to the "ERIKA", without wanting to pre-judge what the courts will decide. In all these maritime dramas the sailors as well as the coastal populations, the fauna and flora, pay heavily when the "misfortunes of the sea" degenerate into an ecological catastrophe.

In these cases there exists a highly responsible entity who regularly escapes all forms of sanction and who should normally be in the front line to receive the heaviest penalties: that entity is the flag state.

It is that flag state that registers the vessel so it has to have resources and sufficient personnel with maritime expertise to impose and control the maritime legislation on its ship. It is this same flag state therefore that should see that the conventions, international rules and standards are respected onboard all vessels registered under its flag in accordance with requirements. It is that flag state that should ensure the seaworthiness of each of these vessels, fit for service for which she is intended, renewing the certificates as well as the navigation certificate and safe manning certificate during the regular inspections and surveys performed by qualified inspectors and competent surveyors with a good level of experience. That's the job of a responsible administration from the point of view of Safety and Protection of the Maritime Environment.

But alas this is not always the case for small countries that often have no maritime traditions and even less a strong and accountable maritime administration behind to support their fleet and preserve maritime safety and impose the relevant legislation! These micro-countries delegate their authority to a Recognized Organisation (R.O), generally a Classification Society, that can in certain cases be the same one that is in contact with the ship owner for the classification of his vessel. Too many unscrupulous ship owners, those who tarnish the image of Shipping, are looking for these flags without states (without a genuine link) to make their most profitable business in a tax fee Paradise, which will transform into Hell for the Sailors.

Following on this there is a classification evaluating the performance of the flag states according to their seriousness. They are classed according to numerous criteria taking into account their compliance with basic international conventions ( Marpol, Solas, STCW, Load Line, OIT, FIPOL), whether they are on the black or the white lists of the Paris or Tokyo Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and US Coast Guard , depending also of deficiencies and detention rates, and whether or not they have good relations with the International Maritime Organisation.

Not forgetting also their relations with the Classification Societies, are they members of the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) ?
The number of old vessels flying their flags also plays a part for their respectability classification including annual loss statistics. We notice however that the greater number of registrations, not the lesser, pose serious problems, such as Panama and other banana republics, not forgetting Malta who joined the European Community on the 1st May and has still not ratified the Marpol convention! Astounding for the 5th fleet in the world!….

Hopefully a clause insists that it ratify the principal international conventions as quickly as possible.

Imagine a vessel identified in a doubtful register, in the framework of all the previously mentioned situations, who has a record a long way from being clean, having had an important number of major and minor deficiencies found during port state controls (PSC) leading to days of detention abroad during the last years. In fact a heavy past record which comes to light following a maritime disaster of great importance, shipwreck of the vessel , loss of human lives and large-scale coastal pollution! Is it not possible in this type of case that the Coastal State, victim of this oil spill, as well as the families of the missing sailors could lodge a complaint before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) ?
This court exists with its head office in Hamburg. It's an independent and competent judicial body to deal with disputes arising out of the interpretation an application of the United Nations Convention for the Law Of the Sea ( UNCLOS - Montego Bay 1982). It was established by a United Nations convention and is called "Settling of Disagreements". Inaugurated in 1996 it is composed of 21 members.
This court is for the Law of the Sea, the equivalent of the International Court of Justice of Den Hague (Netherlands).
Its competence extends to the protection of marine environment. A nation who does not respect its obligations could be brought before this court. All nations have rights to the Main Sea, referring to that famous Freedom of the Seas that has governed maritime shipping for a long time.
Notwithstanding a nation also has its own obligations, made clear since 1982 during the elaboration of the Montego Bay convention on the Law of the Sea. It is on this precise point that the intervention of the ITLOS can be effective in the fight against non respectable flags: harassing them constantly by lodging complaints before this international court at each breach of a vessel flying their flag.

Consulted about a possible complaint by the coastal state against the flag state, following an oil-spill caused by a substandard ship, the answer of a judge of this court was clear: "…It is a very significant and difficult question. The ITLOS could know of any dispute between the flag state and the coastal state on this subject for insufficient control by the flag state of the polluting ship. It never was it and ,moreover, I do not know a case in which one sought to blame the flag state. It is a pity, because all the question of the responsibility for the flag state remains to be defined in international law. It is the one question of will of the sovereign states. It would be enough that France , for example, lodges a complaint against the Bahamas in connection with the Prestige affair in front of the ITLOS or an arbitration court to finally pose the problem in front of an international court. I believe that it would be an interesting contribution to the evolution of the international law on the matter. But I note the reserve of the states to enter this way…"

There is a good chance that constantly being pointed at and wearied by multiple convictions the incriminated state would "cleanup" its fleet by upwardly reviewing the standards to which it must be subjected and equipping itself with a competent maritime administration better able to control its vessels. Only presentable flag registrations would survive this necessary cleanup.
There are still too many countries on the Black and Grey Lists of the Paris and Tokyo MoU. These countries should either cease to practice maritime transport because of the menace they represent for the sailors and the environment or they should make the necessary efforts to get on to the White List grouping the presentable registrations.
Why, at each blatant crime of voluntary illegal oil discharge off its coast, would not a country, as a sovereign coastal state , lodge a complaint before that jurisdiction against the incriminated vessel's flag state ? No doubt, that the complaint would be admissible and that the consequent conviction would carry a fine in keeping with the committed fault, would have effective repercussions in the hunt for the polluters. Above all if there is an obligation for the flag state to restore the environment following any pollution incident.
For the same reasons the flag state has to be responsible of the acts of the ship owner . Especially in the dramatic case of seafarers left behind by their ship owner who disappears when the ship is seized in port. The flag state has many duties, it is normally the one and only link to which should be able to be attached with hope the seamen for payment of their unpaid wages and the expenses of repatriation towards their respective countries. Alas the truth is very different, disturbing, the flag state is always without any reaction in this particular cases and doesn't seem concern at all by this humanitarian problem.
Recently in Argentina, the International Transport Workers'
Federation (ITF) has carried out a study about this problem: it showed that during last 10 years, 8 ships were seized and derelict by their ship owners in Argentine ports, 6 of these "ships of shame"(S.O.S) were flying the Panama flag ! These bad behaviours deserved an action of the port state (Argentine) against the flag state (Panama) before the international court of Hamburg.
These new actions will give work to the ITLOS whom, it must be said, is all but dormant, treating only fishing disputes between states.

There is not any alternative that to bring such cases of maritime offences before the ITLOS because a sovereign state is not allowed to bring charges before its own jurisdiction against another sovereign state for acts holding with the exercise of its sovereignty.
The French magistrate , Dominique de Talancé, in charge of the Erika affair, is well placed to know this principle of jurisdiction immunity based on an "international courtesy" having to chair the relations of good vicinity between sovereign states!
Bad news on the 16th of June 2004, she failed in her attempt to lodge a complaint before the French jurisdiction against Maltese Maritime Authority for negligence in its inspections of the tanker Erika endangering seaman's life and complicity of pollution. Unfortunately, well defended by French clever lawyers, the MMA found the flaw in the first judgement before the Appeal Court in Paris . They succeed to demonstrate that MMA is a public authority, emanation of the Republic of Malta !
Can one speak about courtesy in the sinking of the Erika ?.. We hope that Mrs de Talancé is tenacious and will try to pose the dispute against the flag state before an international jurisdiction, the right one this time, the ITLOS for example.
What will happen if the other entities do the same and succeed to slip through the net of the French justice? The odds are that Captain Mathur, the ship's master, will be very lonely in front of the French judge when the Erika case will stand trial next year. Once more the focus will be entirely on Master, diverting attention from responsibilities of classification society , ship owner, port authorities , charterer, etc…the ship's captain will be The tree which hides the forest !
So, the International Maritime Organisation has a major role to play in cleaning up the international shipping by eradicating from the surface of the oceans the old sub-standard vessels and the easy registration flags who are lax in the area of maritime security.
The IMO is firmly harnessed to this very difficult task to make shipping safer as well as to improve shipping routes, all in order to preserve life at sea to a maximum approaching the zero tolerance. "He that would sail without danger must never come on the Main Sea" said an old adage , it means that the zero tolerance is quite impossible but all measures that contribute to the goal of maritime safety improvement and pollution prevention are very welcome. To this objective the use of the International Tribunal for the Law Of the Sea is a link, a trump that must not be neglected.

At sea there is no room for complacency and substandard flag state, these flags without states , where you can register a ship in a few minutes! We can no longer continue to transport no matter what,.. no matter how. Safer Shipping, Cleaner Oceans …
Capt. M.Bougeard
Master Mariner
Member of AFCAN
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