The problematic past of the ship at the heart of Beirut’s explosion
The MV Rhosus left Batumi port in Georgia on September 23, 2013. Its final destination was Biera in Mozambique, where the 2,750-tonne cargo of ammonium nitrate was due to be deposited. But something along the way went wrong. The vessel, built in 1986 by Tokuoka Zosen, a Japanese shipbuilding company, was initially designed to dredge the ocean floor for a Japanese shipping firm, but ended up being sold on to a number of different companies, with its hull lengthened to transform it into a cargo vessel capable of carrying vast consignments across the world by sea.
When the ship left Batumi, there were 11 known defects flagged up in an inspection. Along the way, some time after stopping in Turkey and Greece as it crossed from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, another seemed to occur. “Serious” hull or machinery damage, according to an industry document detailing the ship’s history, happened to the Rhosus, and it entered Beirut port to be fixed. It never left, with the ship seized for unknown reasons, and those involved with it reportedly “lost interest in the cargo”.
That cargo ended up detonating while inside a warehouse to which it had been moved around two years after the ship first docked in Beirut. It has left hundreds of thousands displaced in the Lebanese capital, and an unknown number dead.
The ship, owned by a Russian businessman and flying under a Moldovan flag, wasn’t unusual. Thousands of vessels like it criss-cross the seas every day, and the fact that the place the ship was built, the nationality of its owner and the flag under which it sailed were all different wasn’t out of the ordinary. “Nowadays, roughly 75 per cent of the world’s fleet is sailing under a country that is different to the country of the vessel’s beneficial ownership,” explains Nicola Mulinaris of Shipbreaking Platform, an NGO looking at the recycling of ships. That’s also known as a flag of convenience.
Most of the world’s shipping fleet is controlled by owners in Greece, Japan, China, the United States and Norway – yet most of the planet’s ships fly under flags provided by countries such as Panama, the Marshall Islands, Liberia, Comoros or St Kitts and Nevis – as well as Moldova. The idea of an open registry of ships, allowing owners to register vessels where they chose, rather than where they’re owned, was introduced by the International Maritime Organisation in 1958, as part of a broader UN package of legislation called the Convention of the High Seas. Today a list of flags of convenience are overseen and adjudicated on by the International Transport Workers’ Federation. The decision changed the shipping industry: while three-quarters of ships fly under a flag of convenience today, it was just 13 per cent back then.
The reasons people choose flags of convenience are multifarious. “These open registries offer shipowners low tax rates, light-touch environments and social regulation, and high levels of financial secrecy,” says Mulinaris. However, the industry quickly realised that encouraged a race to the bottom, with lax enforcement of rules. A vast oil spill off the shore of France in 1978 crystallised thoughts. A memorandum of understanding was signed in Paris in 1982, that required countries within Europe to start inspecting ships more regularly. Today, 27 signatories inspect ships across the continent – nearly 18,000 in 2019, around half of which turned up deficiencies. More than 500 ships were detained after an inspection in Europe. (Similar memorandums of understanding were signed on other continents.)
Signatories to the Paris memorandum also cluster countries offering flags to sail ships – “like us, ships need a nationality, so every ship needs a flag,” says Mulinaris – into three groupings. White flagged countries follow the memorandum to the letter of the law. Grey flagged countries could do better, but are largely passable. And 13 countries worldwide, including Moldova, are black flagged. “Based on detections and inspections, in 2020, Moldova is amongst the worst flags in the world because it doesn’t have enough guarantee that legislation is respected,” says Mulinaris.
“It’s not noted for quality shipping, the Moldovan flag, that’s for sure,” explains Richard Faint of Charter Wise, a maritime consultancy, whose expertise lies in cargo shipments blocked by arrest or other problems. “There’s a lot of fairly ropey tonnage floating around.” However, he points out that despite the damage to the vessel, “the cargo was discharged, was safe, and has been in the warehouse for a few years.”
The Beirut abandoned ship isn’t the only such instance of vessels of curious origins being run until they’re seriously deficient and then being abandoned for years. The Greek port of Elefsina became a graveyard of sorts for 52 wrecked cargo and passenger ships owned by companies whose ultimate controller was untraceable, or which went bankrupt before they could be moved. The head of the Greek public ports authority called the wrecks “an environmental bomb that degrades the environment of the nearby municipalities.” A similar graveyard in Nouadhibou, holds the wrecks of 300 or more vessels.
The abandonment of the MV Rhosus (which its former captain says sunk in the port two or three years back) is another example of a ship left to rot in a port, this time in Beirut. Though the ammonium nitrate was taken off the ship and put into a nearby warehouse for safety reasons – believed to be the same one that ended up being ground zero for the massive blast that decimated Beirut – the fact the ship and its cargo was held in Beirut wasn’t meant to happen, had the ship been in good order in the first place.
The risk of housing the ammonium nitrate taken off the ship was known for at least four years, according to a member of the Lebanese parliament, and yet nothing was done. The owners lost interest; the authorities couldn’t track them. And the cargo was never meant to be in Beirut at all.
“When you compare cargo damage on recognised flags and compare it to cargo damage on flags of convenience, those latter ships have more damage,” says Faint. The fact that the ship was damaged meant it had to pull into the Beirut port. Other, as yet unclear issues with the vessel – either monies owed by the owner or other safety issues – kept it there. Issues around credit meant that the Rhosus was never likely to leave Beirut, and the vast amount of explosive material on board was taken off [link url=”https://shiparrested.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/The-Arrest-News-11th-issue.pdf”]“owing to the risks associated”[/link] with leaving it on board. Reporting from within Lebanon indicates that the ammonium nitrate wasn’t stored much more safely on land than it was at sea – resulting in the massive explosion that has devastated Beirut.
The solution isn’t a simple one. “You have to restructure the whole maritime industry in order to solve the flags of convenience issue, which is the source of a major lack of transparency and enforcement of maritime legislation,” says Mulinaris. “That’s something you should tackle at an international, United Nations level, and the International Maritime Organisation level.”
In some ways the system worked as it was meant to: an unsafe vessel that arrived in Beirut port never left. “People have been trying to tighten up flags of convenience, with some success,” admits Faint. “It’s a lot better than it used to be 20 years ago, that’s for sure. If you don’t meet international safety standards, then ports are entitled to stop the ship leaving.” But the people of Beirut will be wondering why the maritime industry, and its reliance on flags of convenience, let the MV Rhosus set sail in the first place.
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