(BRUSSELS) – The beautiful sunset light does not really manage to lighten the cruel reality of the images: huge ships being dismantled manually by scores of workers in appalling conditions. “With producer Paul Goodman, we originally wanted to make a film on the process of shipbreaking only,” Ralph Vituccio and Tom Clancey, the two American filmmakers of a documentary about shipbreaking in India explain. “But we soon realized that we could not ignore the human rights and the environmental issues.
“Working conditions are dreadful; there are absolutely no safety precautions,” Vituccio goes on to say. “Workers wear sandals and the beach is full of metal scrap and sharp-edged cutting objects. Many of them don’t even wear a helmet. They rip asbestos by hand. Odors and smoke can be awful. Accidents happen regularly. They live in horrendous conditions, in shanty town made with ship material, they have no running water. Some of these workers are as young as 14.”
The film “Shipbreakers” is not due before 2013, but the teaser shown in the European Parliament in Brussels last week was enough to realize shipbreaking can have all the ingredients of hell on Earth.
According to the NGO Shipbreaking Platform — a coalition of 18 human rights, labor rights and environmental organizations — every year about 1,000 ships are sent for breaking so that their steel and some of their contents can be recycled. The problem is that most of these ships contain hazardous materials such as asbestos, mineral oils, PCBs and heavy metals, among others. And only a fraction is handled in a safe, sustainable manner. More often, these ships are simply run ashore on tidal beaches in developing countries, such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, where the lack of environmental protection and safety measures leads to high accident rates, health risks and extensive pollution of coastal areas.
The shipbreaking industry
In 2011, more than 200 European ships were sent for breaking on the beaches of South Asia. And the situation is likely to worsen since large numbers of ships are expected to be sent for dismantling in the coming years as a result of the current overcapacity of the world fleet on the one hand; and because of the phasing-out of single-hull tankers, due by 2015, on the other.
Yet, sending European ships for dismantling to South-East Asia is illegal. In the late 1980s, there was international indignation after reports of 8,000 barrels of chemical waste being dumped on Koko Beach in Nigeria hit the headlines. There were demands for stricter international rules to regulate the export of toxic waste from industrialized to developing countries. As a result, in 1989, the United Nations Basel Convention on the control of Transboundary Movements of Waste and their disposal was adopted.
The Basel Convention provides for a worldwide system of prior written notice and approval for the movement of wastes. In 1995, an amendment was adopted banning the export of hazardous waste from the EU and OECD developed countries to non–OECD countries. The ban was subsequently implemented into European law with the Waste Shipment Regulation that includes end-of-life ships, considered as waste. Since then, it has been illegal for any ship to leave an EU port for a shipbreaking destination located in non-OECD countries.
The European Union is faced with two problems though: First, there is, according to the European Commission, a lack of recycling capacities available in OECD countries, particularly for the largest ships. Second, the export ban is too easily circumvented by ship-owners because it is difficult to identify the moment in which a ship becomes waste. And if the ship-owner does not declare the intention to dismantle a ship when leaving an EU port, the relevant authorities cannot intervene. According to figures from the European Commission, in 2009, more than 90 percent of EU-flagged ships were dismantled outside the OECD, mostly in South Asia. In other words, the export ban is as good as hollow.
The Hong Kong Convention
Realizing the problem, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted the Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally sound Recycling of Ships in 2006. This would allow dismantling everywhere, including in Asian countries, provided the yards are certified to meet international standards. To enter into force, the Hong Kong Convention must be ratified by a sufficient number of states. This is not expected to happen before 2020 at the earliest.
The European Commission has just tabled a draft law whose purpose is to allow an early implementation of the requirements of the Hong Kong Convention for EU-countries. As a result of this new regulation and in order to avoid overlapping, ships would no longer be covered by the older Waste Shipment Regulation, i.e., the Basel Convention.
This has led to a general outcry from the NGOs. They claim that the Hong Kong Convention is far too lax and fails to meet the high requirements of the Basel Convention. The beaching practice, for example, is not explicitly prohibited. There are discussions about how the certification process will function: Who is going to attest that yards in South Asia comply with international human rights and environmental rules? They also argue that if a particular set of laws and regulations is being regularly flouted, the most obvious solution is to pay more attention to an improved enforcement mechanism, not to replace it by a new set of rules that is weaker.
“You cannot leave to developing countries the responsibility to set up proper yards and the Europeans just wash their hands,” says Ludwig Kramer, an environment lawyer for ClientEarth. “The fact is, end-of-life ships are hazardous waste; this is covered by the Basel Convention which prohibits its export, and the EU has ratified that convention. That’s it. The EU cannot decide unilaterally that the Basel Convention is no longer valid for ships. This is illegal under international law.”
The Basel Action Network, an American member of the Shipbreaking Platform, refutes the EU’s claim that there is insufficient ship recycling capacity in developed countries. They say they have identified clean and safe ship underutilized recycling capacity in North America, and that is sufficient to accommodate the current EU-flagged tonnage excess. According to Nikos Mikelis, from the IMO, this is a false claim though, because the conditions for importing ships in the United States are very strict, and the charges are such that it is not realistic to expect ship-owners to pay for them.
This at least has the merit of clarity and exposes two fundamental questions: Who is willing to deal with dangerous waste? And who is willing to bear the costs? The industry has clearly concluded that developing countries were the best deal, regardless of human rights and environmental considerations. And governments find it difficult to put an end to the practice, either because regulations are being circumvented or because they bend to the pressure from the industry. Some argue that developing countries actually benefit from the ship dismantling since they recover valuable steel.
Backlash from developing countries
But Rizwana Hasan, from the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyer’s Association, would not take it. “Well, I would rather they keep their steel and we save our workers’ lives!” she intervenes. “Why would poor countries bear all the costs of the recycling? Why would industrialized countries dump their waste in developing countries?” She also denounces the EU’s lack of consistency. “European countries have banned beaching in Europe but they would not do it on a global level.” She believes the new EU proposal will certainly not improve things on the ground.
There is another major problem: Out of all ships sent for breaking every year, 40 percent are owned by European companies but only 8 percent are actually flagged in the EU. More or less two years before breaking, ships typically change registration. As a result, most end-of-life ships enter Bangladesh with a flag from Panama, West Indies, the British Virgin Islands or the like and there is nothing the EU can do about it. In other words, and whatever the regulation, it will be meaningless if in the end, it leads to EU-ships being flagged out.
Carl Schlyter, in charge of the new draft law in the European Parliament and member of the Swedish Green Party, has an idea that, he believes, will counter that problem. He wants to make all ships that call at a European port pay a fee according to their tonnage. They would only get their money back if they can prove in the end that the dismantling of the ship has been done in a proper way.
“On the substance,” he says, “the NGOs are right of course, we need good and strict rules. But if they are not implemented, what is the benefit?” Does that mean he is prepared to be pragmatic, preferring a less than good solution to no solution at all? “Pragmatic? I hate that word,” the answer comes.
“But what can I do?” he goes on. “If we are too demanding, the new legislation won’t be approved and the situation is not going to improve on the ground. So, I’d rather table a few amendments, ask for an explicit ban on beaching for example and introduce the idea of a fund. I am not even sure I can win that battle!”
Schlyter knows pretty well that many of his colleagues in the European Parliament are sensitive to the needs of the industry; he also knows the draft law will have to be approved by the EU Council, where important shipping states such as Greece, Malta, Cyprus and others are likely to oppose his efforts to strengthen the text.
And in the meantime, the sun will continue to rise and set over inhuman shipbreaking yards somewhere in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.