ESC: high and dry

Now that the International Chamber of Shipping has added its backing to a new international agreement governing liability for cargo lost or damaged at sea, the European Shippers' Council looks increasingly like the odd man out.

The National Industrial Transportation League, composed primarily of shippers, and the World Shipping Council, representing container lines, have already endorsed the "Rotterdam Rules, which are the product of years of multilateral negotiations by a maritime law working group.

The new rules would replace the Hague-Visby regime that is embodied in the 1936 Carriage of Goods by Sea Act in the United States. The new rules were approved by the United Nations General Assembly last July and are scheduled for a signing ceremony in Rotterdam in September. They will become effective after 20 countries ratify them.

The European Shippers Council contends that the Rotterdam Rules, could put small and mid-size shippers at risk by allowing ocean carriers to opt out of the new rules in volume contracts with shippers. Supporters of the new rules say that's a misinterpretation. They say the Rotterdam Rules will simplify cargo liability and and provide shippers with more protection than they now have.

Representatives of the NIT League and WSC traveled to Europe this month to present the ESC with a point-by-point defense of the rules. So far, though, the ESC is still on record in opposition, although it has scheduled a June 22 seminar in Antwerp to discuss the issue.