ABS President, Robert D. Somerville, spoke at the Mare Forum 2002 on Flag State Quality and Regulatory Governance in Athens on 19 September 2002. He presented a unique perspective on the Flag State - Recognized Organization (RO) relationship. In the opening statement Mr. Somerville made a few important observations - he stressed that the relationship is between the flag State and a RO, not the flag state and class; not all ROs for all flags are class societies; the IMO terminology specifically refers to ROs, not class. He also stressed that when a classification society surveyor, acting for an RO, goes aboard a vessel he is there to conduct a statutory inspection.
A classification society surveyor is not there to verify compliance with class Rules and requirements. He is there as the statutory agent of the Flag State to verify compliance, at that time, with the Flag State's regulations. Admittedly many flags require the vessel to be maintained in class as a condition of registry so, in that sense, they require class as a statutory requirement. But the central point of separateness between the two functions at the time of routine statutory inspections should be borne in mind.
The extent of the authority accorded to that inspector depends upon the agreement between the Flag State and the recognized organization. ABS, for example, acts as the statutory agent for just over 100 flag States. But each agreement is unique. For less than half that number ABS is authorized to conduct inspections and issue certificates for the cornerstone conventions - Load Lines, Tonnage, SOLAS, including ISM, and MARPOL. For several administrations ABS authority is restricted to the issuance of Load Line Certificates only. In practice, the ABS surveyor would determine the scope of the deficiencies and propose the issuance of a short-term certificate citing those deficiencies. It remains the Flag State's ultimate prerogative to determine how any shortcomings should be handled.
It is important for the industry to understand the constraints under which any third party must operate when access is limited to infrequent visits to the ship. For example, should some flag states reach an agreement with their ROs to act for them with respect to the enforcement of the Maritime Health and Safety Conventions, the RO inspector can only attest to the living conditions on the vessel at the time he is on board. It is a snap shot approach. Only the vessel operator has day to day control of the vessel and can ensure on-going compliance. It is not class that chafes under this current delineation of responsibilities.
It could be argued that this system works very well when it is applied to competent owners by competent flag States working with competent ROs. When it comes under pressure is when the competence of any one of those three parties wanes. When it becomes dysfunctional is when the Flag State has neither the framework of national laws, nor the willingness to fully carry out the responsibilities that are inherent with operating a ship registry. These dysfunctional flag States attract owners seeking to evade compliance. And the dilemma that faces us as an industry is that, for every poorly performing flag State that improves its standards, another government will promptly enter the competitive arena, offering its flag for sale, no questions asked. There are just as many unquestioning ROs.
ROs cannot by themselves, overcome the failings of a system that accommodates safety averse shipowners. The solution, if one is to be found, lies within the halls of the IMO. The solution requires a re-evaluation of the rights and responsibilities of governments operating a ship registry. The growing effectiveness of Port State Control, as imposed by the Paris MOU, the Tokyo MOU and the US Coast Guard demonstrates that poorly performing flags can be identified and that some restrictive measures can be taken against them through the judicious use of black and grey lists. And individual Port States can put more pressure on poorly performing flags and their poorly performing ROs through penalties and blacklisting. The IMO is taking slow steps towards more specifically defining what constitutes a competent flag State, but still lacks any real enforcement power.
In the meantime ABS, as a responsible class society and conscientious RO, continues to ask itself at frequent intervals the following fundamental questions - Is the cause of maritime safety better served by continuing to act as an RO for flag States whose competence is questionable or non-existent? Or would it be more effective to black list flags that do not meet specified criteria?
Is the industry better served by giving the incompetent RO and the poorly performing Flag State a free hand? Or is it better served if, as repugnant as it may seem, a competent, professional surveyor from a responsible classification society, is able to board that ship wearing his statutory inspector's hat once a year? For the time being ABS has opted to continue acting in this way. A fundamental solution to this problem can only be achieved at the international, intergovernmental level.
Full test of "An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the Flag State - Recognized Organization Relationship" is available on the homepage of the ABS www.eagle.org