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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ship registry award sparks controversy

Ship registry award sparks controversy

Chea Vandeth, a member of the selection committee for the country's new shipping

registry, has defended the government's decision to award the business to the

South Korean Cosmos Group. The contract was awarded January 3 and the company

will assume control within the month.

"This contract is very favorable

for the government's control of the registration process," Vandeth said. "Cosmos

will only do the provisional registration, then submit it to the government for

permanent inclusion under the flag," said Vandeth, an official at the Council of

Ministers.

However that was not the opinion of the International

Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), an international shipping union, which

slammed the decision to award the ship registry to a foreign

contractor.

"It almost beggars belief," said ITF general secretary David

Cockcroft in a statement. "[The] government ... should ask [itself] how long the

rest of the world will continue to be so patient with a government that ... has

effectively licensed people smugglers, drug runners and weapons

traders."

Cockcroft was blunt when asked what kind of measures the new

owner would need to take to overcome the registry's poor name.

"They'll

need to be able to walk on water, because nothing short of a miracle will clean

up the name of Cambodian shipping," he said.

Questions have already been

raised about the new contractor. The Cosmos Group acted as the shipping agent

for both the Winner and the SoSan, both Cambodian-registered ships that were

involved in serious maritime incidents last year.

The Winner was seized

off the West African coast carrying a massive haul of cocaine, while the SoSan

was used to transport North Korean scud missiles to Yemen.

Vandeth blamed

both incidents on the lax practices of the former contractor, the Cambodian

Shipping Corporation (CSC).

"We knew that the Winner and the SoSan were

registered by Cosmos and we investigated that," he said. "But they only acted as

an agent. CSC's job was to manage the vessels - Cosmos just received the

documents and then forwarded them to CSC. They were not responsible for this

problem."

He added that under the terms of the contract, Cosmos had been

given one year to improve the reputation of the country's flag.

The ITF

has for many years been highly critical of the Flag of Convenience registry. It

has represented the crews of several Cambodian-flagged vessels whose owners

abandoned them or refused to pay their wages.

Cockcroft said the country

had "learned nothing" from its experience.

"Once again they are going to

put the reputation of their country in the hands of what may well prove to be an

unaccountable offshore company, and all for a reported $1 million - 8 cents a

year for every Cambodian, in the unlikely event it ever reaches

them."

The government canceled its contract with the privately-owned CSC

in July 2002 after years of embarrassing maritime incidents. Two years earlier

the environmental NGO Greenpeace criticized the registry for registering ships

engaged in illegal fishing off the Angolan coast.

Other incidents have

included human trafficking, maritime accidents and piracy.

A panel of

experts told the US House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee in June

2002 that Cambodia was among a handful of carriers that needed to be monitored

for alleged use by drugs and gun smugglers. Key problems were identified as the

ease of registration and a lack of ship inspections.

Under the new

arrangements, Cosmos is not allowed to offer online registration, which was seen

as a major problem under the previous contract.

The Cosmos Group acts as

an agent to open registries in countries such as Panama, Honduras and Belize.

Vandeth said the company was in the process of setting up a Phnom Penh

office.

The company's website explains that there will be few

restrictions on the use of the Cambodian flag.

"Among the attractions of

the registry are relatively low taxes and registration costs," it states. "In

addition, there will be no restriction on the nationality of owners, ship

officers and crews, tonnage and age of vessels. Cambodian registry would be

[sic] one of the world's top 20 flags in near future."

The ITF said that

was storing up problems for the future.

"The Cambodian register includes

some of the world's worst ships, and [the absence of age restrictions] can only

guarantee that this will continue," Cockcroft said.

"Cambodia's one

chance of cleaning up its register was to slim it down to a national flag and

boot out the criminals, the crew exploiters and the coffin ship owners who

flocked to it. Instead it could well be a case of dodgy business as usual," he

concluded.

But Vandeth pleaded that the ITF simply did not understand the

difficulties faced by the government, which did not have the means or human

resources to run the registry itself.

When CSC's contract was canceled

last year, the register contained the names of more than 900 vessels. Vandeth

said around 700 remained, but admitted the paperwork had few

details.

"Cosmos will work directly with the shipowners to gather more

accurate information on the ships," he said.

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