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November 23, 2009

ITF: Indian Ocean unsafe for seafarers

The ITF (International Transport Federation) has released the following statement on piracy.

The ITF Seafarers Section having assessed the growing problem of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia and now in the wider Indian Ocean has determined that save in exceptional circumstances ships should not transit the area. The risk of attack is now so great that putting seafarers in harms way amounts to a breach of the shipowner's duty of care.

The exceptional circumstances relate to:

  • having close active protection from naval forces or being in a convoy which has an adequate naval escort; or
  • the ship can be classified as low risk and has a proven level of protection measures in place.

The ITF also considers that seafarers should suffer no detriment from refusing to take ships into these high risk areas. Seafarers have a right to refuse to put themselves in harms way and the right to be relieved before the ship enters a high risk area. The ITF calls on flag States and shipowners to uphold seafarers' rights in this regard.

The ITF reaffirmed the position that seafarers should not be armed.

The ITF calls on the wider shipping industry to support this position and to take all measures to ensure the protection of seafarers by not putting them in harm's way.

ITF Maritime Coordinator Steve Cotton explained: "There are countries actively fighting piracy and there are owners training and supporting their crews to resist it. Then there are others who are shirking responsibility and as good as accepting its steadily growing menace, which has now brought us to the point where one of the world's great trading routes is now almost too dangerous to pass through."

He continued: "Today's statement reflects the frustration of all those who work at sea at the dire situation we've reached. One where pirates act virtually unmolested and, even if intercepted, with virtual impunity from arrest. It calls into question the very legality of continuing to send ships through much of the Indian Ocean. It is therefore imperative that not only must protective escorts be used but that flag states immediately decide on the protective measures that they must recommend for the ships that are flying their flag and that those ships' operators comply with them."

He concluded: "We, and many others, also want to see the end of what's virtually an open secret in shipping -- that many of the world's largest ship registers have provided not one vessel to patrol an ocean that can only be made safe by an increase in the number of warships needed to aggressively patrol and police it. I am not aware of a single flag of convenience country that is acting in this way to protect the ships that are supposedly their responsibility."

The ITF says it is aware that many shipowners and operators are similarly frustrated at the current situation and are looking for mechanisms to solve the problem of Somalia piracy, Ultimately the responsibility for the crews' welfare lies with the flag state and owner, and if the situation continues to deteriorate and their legal 'duty of care' for seafarers cannot be assured the owner will need to reevaluate the possibility of vessels passing through these areas. We have made an objective decision of the current levels of risk and we hope and expect that owners will act similarly and then fulfil their legal and moral obligations. It is also essential that they get guidance from the flag states whose responsibility it is to protect the ships flagged to them.

The ITF says that unions' and industry's firm position is that seafarers should not be armed, and that there should be no arms onboard, not only because they introduce massive legal and liability issues but also because they can potentially raise the level of violence used by pirates and further endanger seafarers. "However." it concedes, "the decision on whether or not to carry armed personnel is the prerogative of the flag state and the owner. Unions are keeping the situation vis a vis arms on ships under constant review."


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