Flag of convenience and abuse of international maritime law
The International Law of the Sea is, although vast, incomplete, having significant gaps. Its application is uneven and patchy, largely determined by the non-binding nature of certain agreements or the wide margins of discretion that much of this legislation grants to governments.
In April 29, 1958, the first United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) signed the Geneva Convention on the High Seas (CHS). This convention establishes in article five that “Each State shall fix the conditions for the grant of its nationality to ships, for the registration of ships in its territory, and for the right to fly its flag. Ships have the nationality of the State whose flag they are entitled to fly. There must exist a genuine link between the State and the ship; in particular, the State must effectively exercise its jurisdiction and control in administrative, technical and social matters over ships flying its flag”.
Protected by this Convention, large shipping companies and cruise lines choose to register their vessels in certain countries, taking advantage of their lax laws of convenience, avoiding high international standards – this practice is known by the term "flag of convenience".
Understanding the importance of international maritime trade, it would be easy to assume that there should be a relationship between the most developed countries and the number of vessels that carry their flag. This leads us to assert that countries with more vessels would have to correspond with the major economic powers: USA, England, Germany… but we would be mistaken.
In 2007, 22.2% of the world tonnage was registered in Panama, followed by Liberia, with 9.8% of the world fleets. Bahamas was third with 5.6% of the world fleet. It should be noted that 51.9% of the merchant fleet of bulk carriers are registered in Panama, while 50.6% are oil tankers are registered in Liberia. 50% of the world fleet of cruise ships is registered in the Bahamas.
Maritime accidents due to the use of a flag of convenience from countries with low requirements
The data presented reveal that the vast majority of shipping companies choose to flag their ships by the tax breaks they could gain from the flag State or, worse, by the weakness or lack of rigor in compliance with the flag states’ international requirements. This will have increased the so-called "flags of convenience" phenomenon characterized by the registration of ships that do not meet minimum safety conditions for transporting dangerous goods and cause several preventable accidents.
This situation constitutes a major safety breach and requires a solution. States should be required to comply with the rules of international maritime law on the supervision and control of ships registered in their territory. Shipping companies and cruise liners should be restricted in their choice of their flag, requiring a clear link between the ship and the flag State.