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Thu 20 Dec 2007 04:00 AM

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Guilty until proven innocent?

With 2008 nearly upon us much of the shipping industry's attention has been focused with the upcoming evolution and development of a regional ship registry.

With 2008 nearly upon us much of the shipping industry's attention has been focused with the upcoming evolution and development of a regional ship registry. The front-runner seems to be the UAE flag, being driven forward by the United Arab Emirates Ship Owners Association, and with significant support from Dubai Maritime City and the DIFC.

With the development of such a flag seemingly imminent, an important topic appears to have been bypassed in much of the debate. Whilst it would be beyond the scope of the registry to give a ruling in another nation's waters, the issue of the criminalisation of seafarers appears to have dropped off the collective radar.

A recent accident in the San Francisco Bay area, in which the Cosco Busan container vessel scraped the Bay Bridge, tearing a 90-foot gash in the hull, resulted in approximately 58,000 gallons spilling into the Bay.

Such events, quite rightly raise concerns of competency and negligence, but such a ruling fails to take into account the fact that, despite the best efforts of everybody concerned, accidents do happen.

A mariner simply going about their professional duties should be offered protection from a career, or even life-wrecking prosecution. Despite the best efforts of transportation unions and federations to offer legal assistance, this is still not guaranteed for the individual whose livelihood, and freedom, is often at stake.

With bunker rates soaring during 2007 seafarers will inevitably find themselves under immense pressure to sail through conditions they may have otherwise chosen to avoid. Tacit encouragement is often cited as the overriding reason why mariners took risky decisions when initial feelings were to avoid any additional risk.

Given how emotive environmental issues have become, the protection of staff should once again top the agenda for responsible operators, as harsher penalties, including lengthy jail sentences are almost guaranteed in the future.

Where a regional registry could make a difference is to ensure that crew management standards and the vessels flagged under its code meet the highest possible industry values. For too long irresponsible and poorly enforced flags of convenience have escaped prosecution because international law permits their deniability of responsibility.

The Middle East needs to step up to this challenge and deliver a truly world-leading flag to match its impressive commercial aspirations.

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