A controversial proposal from the United States that would slow down the introduction of key maritime safety initiatives has won support from a number of nations with big merchant shipping fleets but most West European countries opposed it.
Attempts will be made this morning to diffuse the row that has split International Maritime Organization members when T.R. Funder, a Danish delegate and president of the IMO's diplomatic conference, presents a compromise solution.The argument revolves around the issue of approval procedures for amendments to IMO conventions. Whereas countries such as Australia, Britain and most West European nations are in favor of the so-called tacit acceptance system that is designed to speed up the introduction of maritime safety regulations, the United States has made objections on constitutional grounds.
The Netherlands also has constitutional problems with the tacit acceptance system, but most other countries that support the United States do so because they welcome the opportunity to slow down the introduction of tougher ship safety measures, said a senior U.K. Department of Transport official who requested anonymity.
The United States is now "in the same camp" as low-standard countries, the official said.
Delegates attending the IMO's Maritime Safety Committee meeting in London this week are now urgently trying to find a compromise formula that would avoid the need for a vote. The United Nations body has traditionally sought agreement through consensus.
While details of the proposed solution were being kept under wraps, a system of provisional acceptance is likely to be put forward. Under provisional acceptance, nations that chose to would put amendments into effect before they are officially approved by IMO.
The U.K. official said Britain, which strongly opposes the U.S. position, could "reluctantly" live with the compromise on offer. The compromise, if accepted, would postpone the entry into force of ship safety regulations to some extent but the delays would not be totally unacceptable, the official said.
But IMO officials are concerned that tiers of IMO membership and standards would then evolve.
The United States wants to block the use of the tacit acceptance procedure for certain key amendments of the Safety of Life at Sea convention (Solas), arguing that this would set a precedent for other U.N. conventions. Under this
procedure, amendments to conventions automatically take effect at an agreed date unless a certain number of countries specifically object.
The United States wants the positive acceptance system to be applied for some amendments to Solas under discussion this week. These include allowing port state control inspectors to assess the competence of a ship's officers and crew as well as the structural condition of the ship; and shortening the minimum time for entry into force of amendments to Solas.
Under the positive acceptance procedure, support would be needed from two- thirds of the IMO's 149 members, a process that may take decades.
About 30 countries are backing the U.S. position, according to IMO sources, while others are undecided.
Panama, for example, with the world's largest merchant shipping fleet, is still considering its position but broadly backs the United States. Victoria Garibaldo, director general of the Panamanian registry, Secnaves, is in favor of strengthening IMO safety standards but at the same time recognizes the problems of implementing changes quickly when managing a fleet of nearly 6,000 ships, a spokesman said.
Liberia, which controls the world's second-largest merchant fleet, together with a number of other Latin America countries, also opposes fast-track amendment procedures and is siding with the United States, according to IMO officials.
But if a compromise agreement cannot be reached, European Union countries may reluctantly be forced to act unilaterally and introduce regional ship safety regulations, officials said.