March 18, 2003

IMO risks being marginalized
The most far-reaching consequence of the Prestige disaster? The breakup of the international consensus of support for the IMO as the lead organization for vessel safety. That's the view of Clay Maitland managing partner of International Registries Inc., which operates the Marshall Islands register. . Maitland is speaking on "The Fallout from the Prestige" at the CMA Shipping 2003 conference in Stamford, Connecticut, today.

Maitland blames unilateral action by France, Spain, Portugal and the EU itself for weakening the IMO. But he believes the rot had set in earlier when the United States unilaterally introduced OPA 90, following the Exxon Valdez spillage in 1989. He finds it ironic that EU countries now taking unilateralist action vociferously denounced the United States at that time.

"The whole notion of international consensus on maritime-related issues has been put in question," says Maitland. "While it is much too early to write an obituary notice on the IMO, that organisation, if this continues, will become marginalized while the superpower blocs negotiate separate, statist 'solutions.'"

Maitland says IMO can and must be retained as the central controlling forum for maritime regulations. But "through no fault of its own it has been slow to adapt to new political realities."

IMO's lack of flexibility, says Maitlad may be ascribed to one word "sovereignty."

"It's the members, not the organization, that have been the real culprits," says Maitland.

To rescue IMO, it will need to have some enforcement powers, says Maitland. He cites the proposal for a flag state code and a model audit scheme as examples of how such power could be exercised. "The EU is expressing strong support for the code and audit and they could well emerge as a powerful force for its early adoption."

Meetings between William O'Neil, the IMO secretary-general, and Loyola de Palacio, the EU transport commissioner, have resulted in a rapprochement over a global approach. "But." he warned, "we should be under no illusions that the ambition of European politicians is to make the EU as powerful a force on the maritime scene as it is becoming in so many other fields. It will advance its ambitions unilaterally or by pushing the IMO into doing what it wants."

"Perhaps the new European Maritime Safety Agency will act as a moderating influence," speculates Maitland. It might convert the more radical proposals and pressures of the politicians into "measures that we may not like, but which are workable in practice. I have to say, though, that the jury is out on this."

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