World Maritime Day 2017 – Connecting Ships, Ports and People

The World Maritime Day is being formally celebrated by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) on 28 September 2017. The IMO, for those who may not be aware, is the principal organ of the United Nations dealing with and coordinating all maritime related issues ranging from safety, security and environmental concerns to training standards of seafarers and even technical cooperation aspects. It is this organisation which, mindful of the massive contribution made by the international maritime industry in bolstering the global economy, instituted the World Maritime Day that has since become a regular annual feature in the calendar of all seafaring nations. The first time this day was celebrated was on 17 March 1978 to mark the 30th anniversary of the convention which created the IMOs parent organisation, the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organisation. The member states have since swelled from 21 to 169 at present. While commemorating the day, the IMO keeps highlighting a different aspect of its work each year. This day also serves as a reminder to all and sundry that a vibrant and sustainable blue economy is a boon to all mankind.

While the IMO picks a specific date during the last week of every September for its own celebration, it allows each individual government the flexibility to select its own date within the same week. The IMO also chooses an appropriate theme each year to lay a suitable emphasis on. Taking a cue from last year’s theme about shipping being indispensable to the world, the current theme, much more ambitious, is all about ‘Connecting Ships, Ports and People’. It is arguably for the first time that maritime nations are being thematically nudged into viewing the vital inter-connectivity between the three principal components of the maritime sphere.

One cannot help notice that the broader term ‘people’ has been used in lieu of the ubiquitous ‘seafarer’ as had earlier been the norm. The word ‘people’ goes way beyond seafarer to encompass all those involved in the maritime industry in any way. As a matter of fact, all those participating in any manner in this robust cyclic activity  have a valid claim for inclusion.

This is not to say that the role of seafarers in the trade thriving at sea stands diminished. The contribution of seafarers is unique in its own way. They not only spend long and lonely hours at sea but relentlessly battle despondency, human scourges and the elements at the same time in a bid to keep the wheels of world trade rolling along. The IMO had in fact singled out the seafarers for a signal honour by dedicating the year 2010 as the year of the seafarer, which also constituted the theme of that year’s World Maritime Day. A similar theme about the role of the seafarer in the globalisation process had also resounded some nine years earlier. The unique contribution made by seafarers to international seaborne trade, the world economy and civil society as a whole has also been recognised by the maritime fraternity of nations by designating 25 June as the day of the seafarer.

This designation incidentally came about on the sidelines of a conference at Manila organised to deliberate major revisions to the Convention on the Standards of Training, Competency and Watch-keeping and the date chosen for bestowing the honour was none other than the day in which the conference was being conducted. The STCW Convention under discussion that day in 2010 is but one of 60 odd regulatory instruments spearheaded by the IMO in its endeavour to improve safety at sea, facilitate seaborne trade and protect the marine environment. The best known of these is the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea(SOLAS) which gave rise to the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code designed to tighten up maritime security in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The primary instrument had been triggered by the Titanic disaster of 1912 which had led to stringent calls for safety enhancement. Noting the rapidity with which amendments to the original treaty of 1914 were being generated and the procedural delays preventing them from keeping pace with their enactment, the IMO sponsored version of 1974 incorporated a tacit acceptance clause which enabled all amendments to automatically enter into force on a specific date provided sufficient number of objections from state parties as agreed upon had not been received till that time. The current SOLAS Convention is thus referred to as SOLAS 74(as amended), as a number of amendments have been incorporated through this procedure. The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL 73/78) is the most significant marine environmental protection instrument, its primary objective being the minimising of accidental and perhaps deliberate spillage of oil and other noxious substances.

The welfare element has not been ignored either. The International Labour Organisation has worked painstakingly in concert with the IMO and all other stakeholders to patiently craft out a consolidated Maritime Labour Convention which specifically seeks to improve the working conditions under which seafarers and shore staff works. This Convention, adopted in 2006, sets minimum standards which should not be breached. The ILO continues to update over 65 other maritime labour instruments while introducing a system of certification and inspection to enforce them. This has been hailed as the ‘fourth pillar’ of the international maritime regulatory regime, complementing the ones mentioned earlier, namely SOLAS, MARPOL and STCW.

This year’s spotlight on the connectivity between the three principal components of the maritime economy is apt, stemming as it does from previous isolated themes. While it tends to focus on one salient aspect theme-wise, the World Maritime Day furnishes for countries like Pakistan a time for broader introspection. Though the day is only being celebrated in the country since the past seven years, albeit in a subdued manner, the absence of policy makers in the festivities provides a vivid pointer to our apathy to all things maritime. At a time when breath-taking changes are sweeping the maritime domain, Pakistan sadly stands on the sidelines, blissfully oblivious of its legal and social obligations. Despite being a signatory to major international maritime conventions, the country’s record in implementing the thrust of these directives through domestic legislation is however dismal. The only significant piece of domestic legislation cobbled together by Pakistan since the Maritime Zones and Territorial Waters Act of 1976 has been the ‘Carriage of Goods by Sea Act’ of 2010 which only came about because of pressure from exporters who felt that the country’s trade would suffer irretrievably if caught in a time warp. This legislation essentially replaced the British-era Act of 1925 with the British Act of 1992 of the same name. The country has also apparently abdicated its international obligations as a Flag State and Port State Control Authority to lower level functionaries to deal with as they deem fit. A lack of interest and perhaps a lack of understanding can possibly explain why two of the country’s most celebrated maritime projects of recent times, namely Gwadar Port and the Karachi Deepwater Container Terminal, are still floundering when seen in juxtaposition with the nearby ports of Sohar, Ras Fakhan and Fujairah, which are all seen to flourish in a comparable time frame.

The World Maritime Day thus deserves to be taken seriously in Pakistan. On this day, we may do well to take stock of our failings and limitations in the maritime domain, prior applying ourselves during the rest of the year towards faithfully addressing these concerns. It is only after we carry out the much-needed restructuring and capacity-building of an industry, which taken as a whole represents the largest slice of the global economy, that we can think of taking our rightful place in the comity of responsible maritime nations capable of fulfilling our international obligations and harnessing our maritime potential in a sustainable manner.

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