Rotterdam Rules, Still Alive

Remember the Rotterdam Rules? It’s been two years since the U.S. and 19 other United Nations members signed the convention, designed to govern cargo liability on any leg of an intermodal move of ocean cargo — the first door-to-door liability regime.

It took six years to negotiate the rules under the jurisdiction of a United Nations commission. There was a lot of horse-trading, but most nations went away satisfied that they had struck a deal that everyone could live with. There is still opposition among some European shippers, who think Rotterdam will preempt existing liability regimes for goods moving by road and rail.

Recently they noted that only one nation — Spain — has ratified the rules, but many nations are waiting for the United States to give its stamp of approval. Ratification here would put to rest the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act, the liability standard since 1936.

The rules are under review by the State Department, and it’s taking much longer than anyone thought. The official who represented the U.S. at the negotiations would have been responsible for the review. She retired shortly after the singing ceremony in Rotterdam in September 2008. Analysis fell to another State Department attorney, who has taken a long time to absorb all the arcane things about maritime law.

Once they reach the Senate, advocates believe it will be smooth sailing. Two major groups, the NIT League and World Shipping Council, are solidly behind ratification. That means even in a contentious election season, senators should be willing to approve a non-controversial international convention that will be good for trade, and give U.S. shippers a clear set of liability rules that apply everywhere.

Contact R.G. Edmonson at bedmonson@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter @BobinWash.

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