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International Safety Processes

Port state control

Shipping has always been an international business. Seamen in ships sailing abroad had to deal with officials and others in foreign ports, and these officials had to work with foreign ships and seafarers. There was general understanding concerning the safety of ships between nations that owned ships and traded with each other. This was quite understandable. When typical cargoes of merchant ships were coal, timber, foodstuffs, raw materials and manufactured goods, the consequences of a ship sinking or having another sort of accident were generally confined to the crew, the owner and the insurer. It was usually left to the country in which the ship was registered to carry out any investigation. But shipping has changed, as have cargoes, and there has been increasing pressure to make maritime safety an international rather than a national concern.

Why are international processes needed?

Ships` cargoes now include petroleum, toxic chemicals and even nuclear waste, so an accident can seriously affect others who use the sea and those on shore. For instance, a wrecked oil tanker, or even the oil leaking from the fuel tank of a ship that sinks, can cause pollution affecting the livelihood of fishermen and those in seaside communities, as well as killing wildlife.

In addition, a large proportion of ships are now registered in countries quite different from those in which their owners live. It is often felt that many of the states with large fleets registered under their flag (often called `flags of convenience` [definition]) do not have the experience, the personnel or the will to thoroughly investigate an accident to one of their ships and to take measures to prevent similar incidents. With crews becoming very international in character, it would often be difficult to gather surviving crew members together for an inquiry.

Port state control

For these reasons, countries concerned about pollution and other incidents have taken powers to inspect any ship which calls at their ports, regardless of the flag it flies. If the ship is found to be badly maintained, not properly manned with certificated officers, or not to have working safety equipment, it can be detained until matters are put right. This is called `port state control` and is a very important aspect of the international effort to improve the safety of ships. But like all international actions, it depends on all states involved applying the rules actively and consistently. A group of European countries and Canada established the Paris Memorandum of Understanding in 1982. They agree to inspect foreign ships to the same standard and share the results. Since then, other port state control regimes have been established in South America, East Asia and around the Indian Ocean.


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