The Seedy Side of the Sea

The sea is best known for not only facilitating global trade but also effortlessly channelling its major chunk through a complex web of interfaces, better known as ports, scattered all over the continental coastline. The recreational needs that it fulfills in addition, by way of cruises, pleasure yachting, sailing, surfing, scuba diving, island hopping and what-have-you, are all perhaps more satisfying on a personal level.

What is lesser known, however, are those horrendous happenings which not only converts a pacific medium into the ‘outlaw sea’, but also causes it to be dubbed as the ‘greatest crime scene in the world’.

Piracy for one is nothing new and is something that has plagued mankind ever since its more intrepid specimens set sail for commerce and exploration. Julius Caesar has arguably been its most celebrated victim, whose ransoming didn’t however prove to be too conducive to the health of his erstwhile captors.

Side by side with piracy, largely stifled to a great extent barring the Gulf of Guinea, other crimes, cloaked in secrecy, have blossomed. Over time, the sea has become highly valued as a law-evading medium since it is neither substantially policed nor does it have marked borders like on land. From the illegal transportation of humans, drugs and arms to unauthorised poaching and the dumping of toxic waste, the sea has seen it all. Insofar as a ship at sea is concerned, there are five major stakeholders it is beholden to: the vessel’s owner, charterer (if applicable), the exporter/importer of goods it is carrying, the vessel’s registry and finally its crew. The foremost slot is occupied by the ship’s place of registration, or in other words its nationality, whose job it is to ensure that the vessel remains shipshape, that it doesn’t drift beyond well-established functional and legal guidelines, and to discipline those responsible if it does. Owners however predominantly prefer their vessels to fly a flag of convenience, which gives them greater flexibility to do as they please without being taken to task.

Being the only ones out at sea, the axe mostly falls on the poor seafarers whenever anything goes awry. They are the ones most hard-pressed too, owing to their bleak working conditions. Braving isolation, harsh weather conditions and work overload, many seamen struggle with severe psychological ailments for which no help is readily forthcoming.

Around 4000 seamen are believed to lose their lives at sea every year without apparently generating too many ripples on land. The sad part is that most of these accidents are avoidable, being typically linked to lax safety procedures and lack of oversight. In one such incident, 22 of the 24 crew members onboard the Korean-owned STELLAR DAISY lost their lives when the vessel sank in the cold waters of the South Atlantic in March 2017. The vessel’s faulty redesign, while being converted from a VLCC to VLOC a decade earlier is believed to have contributed to its fate. Weather conditions, particularly freak waves, have also been known to sweep crew members away from the deck without a trace.

It is generally seen that regardless of where the fault may lie, it is always those at sea that face the immediate consequences. Many cases have come to light where ships, mostly decrepit ones, are simply abandoned ashore whenever their owners are confronted with straitened financial circumstances. Despite deteriorating conditions onboard, as food, water and electricity begins to run out, the crew clings on to the ship in the vain hope of collecting their back dues.

In one such case involving a payment dispute between the ship owner and the vessel’s fuel supplier, Indian offshore service provider Tag Offshore abandoned an oil tanker, along with its 17 member crew off the Jawaharlal Nehru port. One can just about imagine the distressing state of affairs onboard, when the fuel starts running out, causing disruption to lighting, air-conditioning and garbage disposal facilities. After the Maritime Union of India and National Union of Seafarers of India admitted their helplessness in the matter, the Mumbai High Court came to their rescue by taking cognisance of the matter on the basis of writ petitions filed before it. It ordered the disembarkation of the crew without attracting any civil and/or criminal liability for doing so. The crew can thus consider themselves luckier than most. In this and many similar cases, the Captain and crew are mainly used as pawns for the expeditious settlement of monetary claims.

For quite some time, the UAE has become a preferred spot for abandoning vessels offshore. At one stage, as many as 31 sailors stood stranded on seven such vessels, some for up to two years. Their agony stem from the financial woes of the shipowners, with their own salaries being put on the line. Some crew members prefer to stick it out in the vain hope of recovering their back pay, while others are forced to opt for repatriation. The International Maritime Organisation has now stepped in to provide some relief by making insurance, which would cover crew salaries for up to four months, as well as repatriation costs, compulsory.

Ocean-going fishing vessels however take top prize as far as cruelty towards the crew is concerned. One of the worst of such documented cases occurred in January 1999 onboard a Taiwanese fishing trawler around 1000 miles North East of Mauritius, when its Captain went berserk and ended up killing half of its 25 man crew by the time he was through.

It’s not only the crew which gets a raw deal; passengers too get in the way of the sea’s wrath at times. More than 300 people, most of them students and their teachers on a high school outing to a nearby island, lost their lives in the Sewol ferry disaster of 2014. Many passengers are also known to have fallen over the side, while a  considerable number have complained of having been sexually assaulted. Cruise ship consortiums are understandably keen to play down such concerns to prevent it from adversely affecting their business. Since a large number of Americans go on Caribbean cruises, US law mandates the FBI to investigate cases involving American citizens, regardless of whether the cruise ship docks or does not dock in a US port. Even after having established jurisdiction, what happens next is ‘murky’, for as the President of the International Cruise Victims Association graphically puts it, that when he talks to ‘100 different FBI field agents, I would get 100 different answers’.

The most problematic aspect of crimes being committed onboard is the difficulty experienced in obtaining justice. In a recent case, a Spanish judge let a sexual assault accused go, since he felt he had no jurisdiction over a crime reported to have taken place in international waters. In theory, the Captain is responsible for maintaining the peace, but in practise, the best he can do is to hand over the suspects to the nearest convenient port. He simply doesn’t possess the required prosecution and judicial wherewithal. In theory again, jurisdiction devolves to the country whose flag the ship flies, but in practise, most cruise ships fly a flag of convenience, tagged to a country that doesn’t have the will nor the resources to investigate distant crimes, well beyond its shores.

In theory again, with respect to the case referred to earlier, there is nothing preventing the country to which the victim belongs (UK in this case), or the country to which the suspect is a citizen of (Italy in this case) from taking up the matter. In practise again, owing to the ambiguity embedded in international law, such countries prefer to lie low.

Some ships like the MV Dona Liberta, a rusty refrigerator vessel, referred to as scofflaws, appear to have thrown all caution to the winds. It routinely abused, cheated and even abandoned its crew, caused an oil slick nearly 100 miles long, accumulated unpaid debts of millions of dollars, with its parent company being suspected of illegal fishing operations. The ship not only got away with all this and continued to operate freely, the surprising thing is that it was never short of work or seafarers. At the end of the day, all it took was new ownership, a fresh coat of paint, a new name and a fresh registry to wash away its tainted past.

The problem lies not in legislation, of which there is no dearth. The International Maritime Organisation has promulgated hundreds of rules, regulations and codes governing all safety, security, welfare and training aspects. The shipping industry itself has issued reams of guidelines, while dozens of mutual maritime pacts have been signed. It’s the enforcement part that is lax: national and international agencies have neither the resources nor the inclination to track down and prosecute wrongdoing at sea.

The unscrupulous find an unlikely ally in jurisdictional ambiguity. Take the case of the Dona Liberta: the ship was owned by a Greek company incorporated in Liberia, crewed primarily by Filipinos, captained by an Italian and flagged to the Bahamas. So if the crime was committed in international waters, “who”, asks Mark Young (a retired US Coast Guard Commander) rhetorically, “leads such an investigation?”

As Shakespeare said,

‘The brain may devise laws for the blood,

But a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree.’

And out at sea, out of sight, those with criminal intent are the ones with the hottest tempers.

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