One year after the South Korean-based company Cosmos Group took over Cambodia's troubled shipping registry, government officials are satisfied with the performance of the new contractor, but international shipping watchdogs remain unconvinced of any noticeable change to the registry.
Cosmos' subsidiary, the International Shipping Registry of Cambodia (ISROC), took control of the registry on January 3, 2003 after the government cancelled the contract of Singapore-based Cambodian Shipping Corporation (CSC) in July 2002.
The new contract gave ISROC one year to improve the reputation, registration processes and flag performance of Cambodia's shipping registry, which is widely recognised as a Flag of Convenience (FOC) state.
Undersecretary of State at the Council of Ministers and chairman of the shipping registry's bidding committee Seng Lim Noeu said that since February last year ISROC had facilitated a much more effective registration system and he was pleased with their operation under the circumstances.
"We've had absolutely no problems with the new company since the contract was signed," he said. "I think [the shipping registry] is much better now than it was before, and considering that ISROC have only just received all the necessary information from [CSC], they have done very well."
Lim Noeu said that in comparison to CSC's occupancy, ISROC's strict registration guidelines had given the government much more control of the registry. CSC were heavily criticised for their lenient registration criteria, lack of ship inspections and connections with North Korea.
"Previously, CSC offered online registration in less than 24 hours and accepted every boat," he said. "Now, [ISROC] provide the provisional safety information, then we have it checked by an international company and passed on to the committee, who can decide to transfer it to the registry if approved. This way we know everything about the boats on our register."
In nine months as contractor, Lim Noeu said ISROC had paid around $360,000 in registration fees to the Ministry of Economy and Finance, compared to only $350,000 during CSC's eight-year tenure.
He added that North Korean ships were no longer eligible for approval and the number of ships registered under the Cambodian flag had been more than halved to around 425. This number also included ships with previous CSC registrations that were yet to expire.
But the International Transport Workers Federation, an international shipping union which was highly critical of the decision to award the registry contract to a private offshore company, remained sceptical of the government's claims concerning the new contractor's rapid progress.
ITF General Secretary David Cockcroft said that although ISROC had brought about some improvements to the registration processes, the physical condition of the boats and their crews under the Cambodian flag was still abysmal.
"Is the flag still a byword for ships on criminal voyages? It's still too early to say," he said. "Have Cambodian flagged ships suddenly become safer, or better places to work? We know the answer to that one, and it's no."
The ITF's inspection logs of Cambodian vessels from April to October 2003 showed repeated incidents of unsatisfactory food, accommodation, ships and safety equipment, as well as low or unpaid wages.
"Most are still old, bad or downright dangerous, crewed by poor souls who are vulnerable to violence, abandonment and rip offs," Cockcroft said. "Our log of inspections from the last six months shows that Cambodian ships are still as rotten and risky to work on as ever."
Cockcroft did acknowledge the fact that many of Cambodia's worst ships had been transferred to the Mongolian register, which he said was widely regarded as a front for those who previously ran the CSC, and that there had been fewer high-profile maritime episodes since the changeover.
Another prominent member of the Cambodian Shipping Registry Committee (who did not wish to be named) said ISROC's strict registration guidelines and increased government participation were the major reasons for the decrease in the number of incidents involving Cambodian vessels.
Despite his claims, however, Secretary of the International Chamber of Shipping, Simon Bennett, said Cambodia "still has [one of] the highest number of negative performance indicators amongst the world's flags based on data available in the public domain".
Four Cambodian flagged ships, all over 25 years old, were banned from entering European Union ports in late November and as of June 2003, Cambodia was still blacklisted by the Asia Pacific Port State Control in Tokyo and was on the United States 'target list'. The ITF also recorded three separate detentions of Cambodian ships since April.
Questions were raised last year about the Cosmos group when the cocaine-laden 'Winner' was captured by French authorities and the 'So San', a North Korean crewed ship carrying 12 Scud missiles, was intercepted on its way to Yemen. The Cosmos group acted as agents for both ships, but the management of them was still under the jurisdiction of the CSC.
ISROC's international headquarters failed to respond before press time.