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Iran crisis sheds light on dark shipping rules



The current crisis in the Strait of Hormuz has put a spotlight on the dark world of international shipping, where shipowners can register and re-register their vessels within minutes, turning their crews into pawns in a game of diplomatic chess. ] "If you've got a credit card, and you've got 15 minutes, you can re-register your ship under any flag you want," said Michael Roe, a professor of maritime and logistics policy at the University of Plymouth.

Under the maritime laws, every merchant ship has to be registered with one country. While the UN Convention on High Seas states that a vessel should have a "genuine" link with its flag state, the current rules allow ships to sail under almost any flag regardless of their ownership, as long as they pay the registration fee. This is known in the shipping industry as a "flag of convenience."

That's about 40% of the global fleet registered in Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands – three countries that together own just 169 ships – shows how common the practice is

"Without being too insulting, these "

 The crew of UK-flagged tanker Stena Impero got caught up in the middle of a diplomatic spat .

Registration decisions are mostly driven by commercial reasons.

"One way to reduce costs is to choose a flag like Mongolia," Roe said. "It's got no coast, no ports, no real direct relevance to shipping, but it's a flag that is cheap and low, so it's good for shipowners."

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 265 vessels with a total cargo capacity of 664 million tons sailing under the Mongolian flag.

It works the other way too. Greece, a shipping superpower that owns the largest fleet in the world, is sailing most of its ships under a foreign flag, because shipowners want to avoid Greece's high tax rates.

 Alter your course, & # 39; Iranians warned before seizing UK-flagged ship

Having a large flag is prestigious but also lucrative, which is why countries compete fiercely for ships to register with them.

"It's quite common for shipping companies to shop around for a flag that suits them," said Richard Coles, senior research fellow at the Institute of Maritime Law at the University of Southampton

Coles, a long-time shipping lawyer said the term "flag of convenience" is considered to be somewhat derogatory in the shipping industry, because under international conventions, every ship has to comply with common safety, environmental and labor law standards, regardless of its flag

"Now here is the rub, "Coles said. "A British-flagged vessel or an American-flagged, these are flag states that rigorously enforce their safety rules, while if you have a small Caribbean island that does not have a large civil service and the means of enforcing the rules, obviously, the standards are not likely to be as good, "he said.

But the flag decision can have a huge impact on crews. Wall Impero, the Swedish-owned tanker that was seized in Iran last week, was almost certainly targeted because if it was flying the British flag.

Iran captured the vessel as a tit-for-tat after its own tanker was detained in Gibraltar because it was carrying Iranian oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions
The crew aboard Stena Impero comes from India, the Philippines , Russia and Latvia, countries that are mostly not involved in the current spat between the Iranians and the West.

It's a fairly typical makeup: India, Russia and the Philippines are among the top five countries with the highest number of seafarers.

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[19659902] ] David Heindel, the chairman of the Seafarers section at the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITWF), said the risk crews in the Strait of Hormuz are "totally unacceptable."

The ITWF has been campaigning against flags of convenience for decades, saying the practice puts crews at risk of exploitation

"On the flag of convenience vessels, non-national seafarers simply do not have the same rights that national seafarers would have if they were employed." When a ship registers with a country, it assumes its nationality and becomes governed by that state's laws. In return, the country is theoretically responsible for the vessel and its crew, regardless of their nationalities.

But Heindel said seafarers sometimes find it difficult to get help from their ship's flag state if they are not its citizens. This is especially true when the flag belongs to a developing country with little diplomatic power and no real labor protections.

At the same time, Heindel said, diplomatic missions of seafarers' own countries may not be able to help either.

To make matters even more complicated, ships are allowed to switch flags and re-register as they please, even mid-journey. ” class=”media__image” src=”http://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190722165643-01-iran-uk-tanker-stena-impero-crew-grab-large-169.jpg”/>

Iran releases footage of captured tanker's crew ” data-src-mini=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190722165643-01-iran-uk-tanker-stena-impero-crew-grab-small-169.jpg” data-src-xsmall=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190722165643-01-iran-uk-tanker-stena-impero-crew-grab-medium-plus-169.jpg” data-src-small=”http://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190722165643-01-iran-uk-tanker-stena-impero-crew-grab-large-169.jpg” data-src-medium=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190722165643-01-iran-uk-tanker-stena-impero-crew-grab-exlarge-169.jpg” data-src-large=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190722165643-01-iran-uk-tanker-stena-impero-crew-grab-super-169.jpg” data-src-full16x9=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190722165643-01-iran-uk-tanker-stena-impero-crew-grab-full-169.jpg” data-src-mini1x1=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190722165643-01-iran-uk-tanker-stena-impero-crew-grab-small-11.jpg” data-demand-load=”not-loaded” data-eq-pts=”mini: 0, xsmall: 221, small: 308, medium: 461, large: 781″ src=”data:image/gif;base64,R0lGODlhEAAJAJEAAAAAAP///////wAAACH5BAEAAAIALAAAAAAQAAkAAAIKlI+py+0Po5yUFQA7″/>

According to the spokesperson of Stena Bulk, Stena Impero's owner, British and Swedish governments are leading diplomatic efforts to keep the ship and crew released, keeping Russian, Latvian, Philippine and Indian embassies informed. Hanell, Stena Bulk's CEO, said he would not speculate on whether the ship's flag played a role in the seizure.

He said that while Stena Bulk is Swedish-owned, the company operates "all over the globe" and has "a big presence in Britain." [19659903] "There are many reasons why you have another flag," he added.
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