March 28, 2013

Deadlines for headlines

It is now two months since IMO head Koji Sekimizu pledged that his organisation would halve the number of seafarer deaths in the next two years- and, to boot, eradicate piracy by 2015. There is a strong possibility that his was just an administrator’s sound-bite, of course, short on substance and long on rhetoric. Whatever. I should remind the IMO that a twelfth of Sekimizu’s self-allotted time over the seafarer death issue is already over- and as for piracy, it has actually escalated over the last two months, especially off West Africa. Sekimizu’s statement had hit the headlines in the maritime press two months ago; it is time to start wondering, methinks, if there are any teeth behind the words. 

Unfortunately, the simple fact is that shipping does not have a clue- or a structure- that can effectively and practically handle issues that the IMO honcho has pledged to control. Shipping does not even have reliable statistics to understand the extent of the problem. The figures of a thousand odd annual seafarer deaths Mr Sekimizu quoted in January are shots in the dark; he admitted as much when he said that the figures were “neither accurate or comprehensive,” and he caused at least my eyebrows to rise with his opinion that the IMO should set up an official system to collect and collate casualty information. We don’t need more administration of life-threatening issues, Mr Sekimizu; we need solutions instead.
The reality is that systems in shipping, including at the IMO, are not set up to pursue either safety or security. Clueless administrators, uncaring Flag States and an industry ridden with short-sightedness, a culture of penny pinching and conflicting interests combine to churn a cocktail that freezes the already impotent system- and, consequently, makes it even more dangerous for seamen out at sea. Owners switch flags if pushed, States stall, administrators continue to administer the ludicrous or are complicit in corruption. Everybody spews homilies while sailors continue to die or be taken hostage at sea. 

“The problem is the industry and the people who work in it,” Allan Graveson from Nautilus says. I could not agree more.

I assume Mr Sekimizu was serious when he made that statement in January.  If so, maybe I could remind him that a system- like a cleanup- should start from the top if it has to succeed. First of all, the IMO needs to start building up momentum- on a war footing- to ensure that the international shipping community commits to safety and security. For example, issues such as seafarer fatigue (directly linked to many accidents), lifeboat drill casualties, container weight misdeclarations, moisture content in ore fines et al cannot be addressed even remotely satisfactorily if international or national legislators and administrators are checkmated by commercial or regional interests, or compromised by corruption. The people who purport to be at the apex of decision making must be on board this initiative; if they cannot be or will not be, then the whole exercise is futile.

As far as piracy is concerned, the systemic solutions here are, frankly, beyond the scope of the IMO and Mr Sekimizu; he has to involve IMO parent- the United Nations- to get anywhere worthwhile. I am afraid the UN’s history is not very encouraging either; its report card is littered with Fs in almost any country into which it has dipped its toes. Nonetheless, the UN is all we have, and the IMO- with the member states of the UN- must formulate a SOP wherever pirate incidents occur- and they will occur more and more, because the Somalis and the Nigerians have shown every wannabe criminal in the world a business model for raking in big bucks at relatively low risk. Unless international systems are robust, timely and practical, and unless we have standard operating procedures in place that will automatically apply to any new piracy zone, we will continue to dither while our seamen die. 

Controlling the gravy train of anti-piracy will be another big test for Sekimizu.

I am afraid that the ambitious time targets set by Mr Sekimizu- two years and 2015- are never going to be met. The IMO Chief would do very well if- in the next two years- he can just get the international community on board on security and safety issues and do the simple things that need to be done in a concerted and honest manner. If Sekimizu is serious, he needs to start now, because his effective power and his ability to make a difference will wane as his term as IMO head winds down later.

The simple fact is that shipping, like much else in life, does not fail because of the strengths of its enemies. It fails because of its own weaknesses.


No comments: