Flying the Flag, Fleeing the State
April 25, 2011 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Flags of Convenience allow ship owners to register ships to countries other than their own. More than half of current merchant ships are registered under them. As you might imagine, such a system can lead to abuse. In an op-ed in today's New York Times, Rose George suggests some changes. posted by beisny (15 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I say we let the free market work. If you want my country's protection from threats not in my directly controlled waters, you'd better be flying my flag. Otherwise, negotiate protection with the nation you've registered with.

So, if you want me to protect you against, say, Somali pirates, you better be registered in and flying the flag of Erikovania. Suddenly, I think flying the Liberian or NK flag would become much less attractive -- esp. if insurance rates skyrocket when the insurers realize that if you get into trouble in the Gulf, the USN and NoE is just going to pop popcorn and watch the fun.

Now, of course, if you are a peaceful ship in the water of Erikovania, you would receive as a matter of course the protections that all ships including those flying the flag of Erikovania receive. We welcome your trade and we will protect you in our waters*. However, on the high seas? You talk to whomever you're sailing under. If it's Erikovania, dial 1-PLS-HLP-KTHX.

And if it isn't? Please call whoemever.


* So long as you properly ask for pratique and fly our flag under yours as a courtesy, which says "I'm just visiting, thanks!"
posted by eriko at 10:27 AM on April 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

I know I can google it myself, but who is Rose George, and why would Rose's suggestions carry any weight ? (even the little about line at the end of TFA doesn't really help me ..)
posted by k5.user at 10:41 AM on April 25, 2011

This sounds suspiciously like the maunderings of someone who is opposed to Trade. Seriously? Proposing changes in legislation & regulation? What, are we to think Capitalists should subjugate themselves to some pencil-pushing bureaucrat in a basement somewhere?

No! I think not! Trade must be unfettered! If perhaps some brown people happen to be ill-treated, if perhaps some shorelines are cluttered with heavy oils, then this is merely the price that the poor must pay for the prosperity of our corporate overlords. I, for one, and grateful for their brilliance and would cautiously seek to remind them that I may be useful in whatever capacity they deem fit.
posted by aramaic at 11:14 AM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

eriko, the RTFA takeaway is less about protection of the ship and crew from pirates as protection of the environment and workers from irresponsible shipowners using shell companies and other subterfuges to avoid liability. Not sure what your proposal does for that.

Unfortunately, this is a pretty weak goo-goo proposal that doesn't have a prayer of getting political momentum. It's probably going to take something slightly unrelated but more awful than mere environment or labor concerns, like the successful delivery of a dirty bomb in a cargo container, to get anything to happen. The economic interests of shippers would likely even preclude unilateral action, say, by OECD countries.
posted by dhartung at 11:16 AM on April 25, 2011

Eh, it's not even that much of a proposal so much as it is an author who is writing a book about merchant shipping doing a brief opinion piece in the newspaper of record, probably planting seeds for when her book is finally done and hits the shelves.

I do, however, think that it would be good to get this whole flags of convenience thing untangled so ships actually have traceable owners and countries of ownership. I think the world would be a better place when abuse (of the environment or of sailors) can be easily traced to those responsible and rectified.
posted by hippybear at 11:32 AM on April 25, 2011

something needs to be done about piracy

So a sudden uptick of attacks stemming from a lawless tract of land on the Africa Horn is the basis to now reform the entire ship registry process?

I think the convenience part of the system is lost on the author.
posted by jsavimbi at 11:34 AM on April 25, 2011

The convenience part of the system is lost on me, except for what dhartung says above. Please help.
posted by sneebler at 11:38 AM on April 25, 2011

I thought that quote at the end of the NYT article sounded familiar.

Rose George had an excerpted piece in Slate back in November (first part starts here). It's pretty interesting, goes into who she is, but also the stark realities of life on a merchant marine.
posted by librarylis at 11:45 AM on April 25, 2011

Not sure what your proposal does for that.

The reason for taking up a flag of convenience is to ignore those regulations by flying a flag of a country that either has no laws concerning environmental issues, workplace safety, etc.

The problem is we're letting them socialize a cost -- the cost of protection on the seas -- and privatize a profit -- the lack of need to spend money on environmental and workplace safety, the lower taxes, etc. My proposal, only slightly tongue in cheek, is that they should get what they pay for, and if they can get protection on the high seas and dangerous local waters from, say, Libera or North Korea, then they're welcome to that flag.

If they insist that, say, the US, the UK, France or Russia have naval presence in these waters to protect them, that's fine. Fly the US, UK, French or Russian flag, pay the taxes, comply with the laws, and you can have the protection of the few navies actually able to get out there and protect you.

What we need to stop is "Oh, save that Liberian Freighter." No, Liberia can do that, and the owners can decide if the risk of non-protection is worth the savings by flying a flag of convenience. The problem is we give them the best of both worlds -- they pay low tax in foreign countries, but get the protection of various navies of the world.

We could also tax foreign freighters in our ports for this service, but OMG TAXES YOU COMMIE, so that won't happen.

So, instead -- let's give them what they're paying for.
posted by eriko at 11:59 AM on April 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

OK, eriko, I'll be fair and admit that I get it now.
posted by dhartung at 12:36 PM on April 25, 2011

On a smaller scale, almost every trailer (for a tractor trailer) is licensed in Maine. Or ever wonder why all those companies are incorporated in Delaware?
posted by 445supermag at 12:44 PM on April 25, 2011

Come to find out, the Deepwater Horizon was flying a Marshall Islands flag at the time of her demise, so if that did nothing to trigger an examination of the practices of flag registry, than I don't know what exactly will or how many people of worth need to die.

Anyways, if 55% of the world's fleet consists of convenience-flagged vessels, it means that the system in place is working for those engaging in the practice and nothing is going to make them want to change.
posted by jsavimbi at 1:04 PM on April 25, 2011

Oh, I'll tell you why folks incorporate in Del.. Mainly to beggar thy neighbor..
posted by k5.user at 1:38 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Please think about the owners. Corporations aren't truly happy unless they're dicking somebody over.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:01 PM on April 25, 2011

From the article:
"A more immediate, if partial, solution would be for port authorities, which have the power to detain unsafe or abusive ships that dock in their harbors, to pay extra attention to ships registered under notoriously lax states, like the Comoros. To avoid this extra scrutiny and the possibility of detention fees, ships might pressure the registries to raise their standards."
Welcome to the Paris Memorandum of Understanding and their black/grey/white list (pdf). Basically, the Port State Control inspectors in those countries in the Paris MoU pay extra attention to ships on the blacklist, some to the ones on the grey list, and not quite as much on the whitelist. There are other MoUs, but they don't seem to publicise any blacklists as much. Guess what, the Comoros are on the blacklist. It's almost like she's talking about something that already exists! Except then her logic falls down a bit, because why would 'ships' (or even shipowners) 'pressure the registries to raise their standards', when she's already established that ships can conveniently be registered wherever the owners like, and owners will thus vote with their feet and reregister in a country in the shade of their choice. Further,
"Many state registries lack the capacity or will to monitor the safety and working conditions on ships, or to investigate accidents. Instead, ship safety certificates are given out by private classification societies."
The last page of the blacklist file linked above contains a list of classification societies ('recognised organisations') arranged in the same way as the flag state blacklist. You can decide for yourself what purpose this information serves.

As at 31 March, the Most Sky was still under detention in Birkenhead. (MCA detentions list, including a broken link because it wouldn't be the MCA website without SOMETHING being wrong with it).
posted by Lebannen at 6:04 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

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