It has been a year since the government rescinded its notorious flags of convenience scheme yet foreign-owned ships appear to be flying the Cambodian flag with impunity, raising questions about whether the government has the resolve to fully abandon the controversial practice that allows merchant ships to avoid restrictions and financial charges in their home countries.
Data compiled from maritime tracking sites show at least 19 foreign-owned merchant ships flagged as Cambodian were operational within the last three months, with many of them showing movement within the last week. The vessels – ranging from yachts to ferries and cargo ships – have been operating in the waters near China, Indonesia and the Philippines, and as far afield as off the coast of Saudi Arabia.
Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MWPT) officials claimed last year that Cambodia officially scrapped its flags of convenience scheme on September 1, 2016, following decades of abuse that saw foreign ships registered as Cambodian vessels used for drug smuggling, human trafficking and illicit arms deals. However, analysts suspect the government may lack the “political will” to fully abolish the scheme.
Jacqueline Smith, maritime coordinator for the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITWF), said that while Cambodia announced last year that it had scrapped its flags of convenience scheme it has not, as far as she was aware, provided its ship registry to countries and organisations concerned to take action against vessels illegally flying its national emblem.
“We have not seen any official withdrawal of the register or notice that it is no longer operative, which is surprising if the government is serious about stopping the register to be used as a flag of convenience,” she said. “So unless the government has . . . sent out an official notice, then many ports will continue to allow vessels in.”
Smith added that despite Cambodia’s non-transparent legal system governing the country’s ship register, which was outsourced to the South Korean firm Cosmos Group in 2003 and supposedly handed over to the Cambodian government last year, it should not be difficult to end the scheme.
“Our experience from other countries is that it is not complicated if there is a political will to change,” she said. “Previously it has been reported that by the end of 2016 that there will not be any Cambodian flag vessels, however, this does not seem to be the case.”
As recently as September 20, a maritime tracking site picked up the transponder signal of the now-infamous Jie Shun cargo ship, which appeared to be floating almost dead in the water off the coast of China near North Korean territorial waters and still registered under a Cambodian flag.
The freighter was last recorded in Egyptian waters in August 2016, where it was intercepted en route from North Korea and found to be carrying 30,000 North Korean-made PG-7 rocket-propelled grenades and related components in its hold.
A report on a United Nations investigation published earlier this year claimed that North Korea’s use Cambodia’s flag was a flagrant violation that allowed the rogue state to dodge sanctions.
When notified that recent maritime tracking data shows continued violations of the scuttled ship registration scheme, Chan Dara, director-general of waterways, maritime transport and ports at the MWPT, acknowledged that it was possible that foreign-owned ships could be still be hoisting the Cambodian flag.
“I have not been informed of [these ships],” he said in a text message, requesting that details of the maritime tracking data be emailed to him. “I can assure [you] that we must take action against those ships [for operating illegally].”
Dara expressed hopes that the ministry could find out who was “behind the scenes” operating the vessels. However, he declined to comment on whether the government had the capacity to stop the illegally operated ships, or intends to notify international authorities to intercept them.
International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) policy director Simon Bennett said Cambodia could call upon a bevy of resources to prevent ships from abusing its flag.
“If the Cambodia authorities are serious about withdrawing flag state certificates from foreign-owned ships they should be able to do so,” he said. “[For those operating] it would then be a crime under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, as well as the International Maritime Organisation’s Safety of Life at Sea (Solas) and Prevention of Pollution from Ships (Marpol) conventions.”
While Bennett said it was still unclear if Cambodia had control over its own ship registry, the Kingdom should be able reach out to international support to stop the practice.
“Cambodia should be able to enlist the support of overseas port states where these ships might visit by simply sending a list of the deregistered ships to the regional authorities that coordinate Port State Control inspections of ships,” he said, referring to the Tokyo and Paris MoU on Port State Control for Activity in the Pacific and the Atlantic, respectively.
“The local port states should then be able to target the ships for inspection and detention,” he said.However, ITWF’s Smith said this would not necessarily stop all ships operating with Cambodian flags.
“If the vessels are trading between ports without proper resources, then there is little chance that they will be detained,” she said.