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World: Maritime Experts Consider Proposals For Countering Terrorism

Security experts from government and industry are meeting this week at the London headquarters of the UN's International Maritime Organization (IMO) to discuss proposals to counter the possibility of terrorism launched by sea. The U.S. has put forward a number of rigorous proposals, but they are not being universally embraced.

Prague, 13 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The 400 or so experts meeting behind closed doors in London this week are part of the International Maritime Organization's special working group on maritime safety.

They have gathered to begin reviewing all of the IMO's existing measures to deal with the threat of terrorism amid heightened concerns following the 11 September attacks on the United States. In late 2001, British police intercepted a cargo ship in the English Channel after receiving a tip that it was carrying terrorist materials. Tests later confirmed there were no dangerous materials on board, but the incident served to highlight the threat of terrorists using ships to transport weapons or to launch attacks using the ships themselves. One of the biggest fears is that terrorists could hijack a ship carrying cargo such as gas or oil, pack it with bombs, and explode it upon docking.

The experts at the IMO's London meeting are discussing several U.S. proposals to beef up shipping and port security under the IMO's international convention for the safety of life at sea, or SOLAS.

One U.S. proposal is to institute a requirement for electronic identification systems on ships, which already will be mandatory for some vessels starting in July.

Another proposal is to establish a system to ensure a secure chain of custody for containers, which would monitor them through loading, shipping, and unloading at their points of arrival. The U.S. also wants security plans drawn up for port facilities and offshore terminals.

Captain Tore Fossum is senior deputy director of the IMO's Maritime Safety Division. He says discussions are at a very early stage. But he says London delegates are not keen on one proposal in particular -- a requirement for seafarers' identification that would include background checks.

"There's not really a will in the audience to agree on background checks of seafarers because no other workers are having background checks except if they are dealing with security, [such as] in banks or offices," Fossum says. "But if you're just a worker -- a plumber or whatever -- there is no background check."

He says it is not just a lack of political will. The civil liberties legislation in some of the IMO's 161 member nations, he says, will simply not allow such a plan.

"You cannot just start investigating a person because he is a seafarer or investigating a person because he is a carpenter. You have to have a reason. Has he done something wrong? This is a real issue that is legal -- it's not technical," Fossum says.

Michael Marco is a maritime industry expert and vice-chairman of New York's McQuilling Brokerage Partners. Marco says he fears the proposals will be watered down to gain international approval.

Marco suggests the U.S. should simply do as it did when Congress enacted the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 -- or OPA 90 -- in response to the Exxon Valdez crude-oil spill off Alaska the year before. This act made double hulls mandatory for oil tankers operating in U.S. waters and established a phase-out schedule for older ships.

"My feeling is very strong that we need to protect our own shores as we did when we passed the OPA 90 regulations on oil tankers. We made regulations and we said, 'These are the regulations to trade to our land. If you don't like it, then don't come.' We should do the same with our own security regulations," Marco says. "We should say, 'These are our regulations. We're not trying to impose them on you, but if you want to trade to the U.S. and deal with the U.S., then you have to live with them, because this is the way we are going to allow vessels or airplanes or any other method of transportation into our country.'"

Marco says OPA 90 was hugely expensive for the oil-tanker industry to institute. And he says financial considerations are behind the opposition to the current U.S. proposals on maritime security. Another, he says, is that some countries do not like the feeling that the U.S. is dictating to them. But he says the U.S. should put its own interests first.

"You get on an airplane today, you have to deal with people taking off your shoes. You have to deal with people breaking your nail files. You have to deal with things like that. That's part of our security protection," Marco says. "If [our security protection] requires you to make sure that all of your seamen are documented -- properly documented -- before they can come into this country, and you have to file a manifest [itemized list of a ship's cargo] with those people on it and what their history is, and that's one of the regulations that [is required of] a vessel to come in here -- especially a gas ship or something that could be used as a bomb -- then that's what you have to do. And if you don't want to do it, then send it somewhere else."

IMO Secretary-General William O'Neil, in remarks released before this week's meeting, said the challenge is to enhance maritime security without hindering the free flow of people, cargo, goods, and raw materials.

But Fossum says any measures eventually adopted should not hamper the industry too much. He cites tighter security at airports as an example.

"[If] you have been traveling yourself lately by plane, the security check is a bit longer, yes. But still you can fly wherever you like. It's not that suddenly everything stops," Fossum says.

The working group will make recommendations to the IMO's maritime safety committee, which meets in May. Depending on the outcome of that meeting, the proposals could be adopted at a special diplomatic conference scheduled for December.