Australian Senate inquiry warns of 'Flag of Convenience' national security risks

The coroner's finding was of a double murder of foreign seafarers aboard MV Sage Sagittarius. Credit: Zoe Reynolds

An Australian senate inquiry has called on the government to do more to combat national security risks associated with ships registered with disreputable open registries (which they referred to using the term ‘flags of convenience’).

In addition to highlighting that some of these vessels carry dangerous goods, such as ammonium nitrate and petroleum products, around the country’s coast, they also highlighted onboard conditions. “The committee is very disturbed by the many examples of job losses, poor working conditions, inadequate wages, and deaths and disappearances at sea,” the inquiry said, adding that in the past financial year, only 1,072 of the 15,715 commercial vessels arriving in Australia were searched by the Australian Border Force (ABF).

Darrin Barnett, representative of the Maritime Union of Australia, was also concerned about criminal involvement. Speaking to Safety at Sea, he pointed out that use of a flag of convenience “often deliberately obscures the ownership of the vessel, which can lead to targeting by organised crime syndicates or terrorist groups”. Owners can also avoid taking responsibility when things go wrong.

Describing flag state rules, regulations and enforcement as “generally poor” among flags of convenience when it comes to safety, pay, and conditions for crew, he added that Australian background checks and processes for international seafarers to work in local waters were inferior to those for domestic seafarers.

The risk of criminal activity associated with ships flying a flag of convenience came into the spotlight after the New South Wales coroner recorded a finding of murder in the case of two foreign seafarers found dead on board Sage Sagittarius while in Australian waters in 2012. A third crew member was found dead in the vessel’s coal loader when it arrived in Japan.

The inquiry questioned Australian Border Force officials in depth about national security issues, as the vessel’s captain, Venancio Salas Jr, was in July 2013 given permission to return to work in Australia less than 12 months after the first death on his ship, which was being treated as suspicious by the Australian Border Force.

A coroner’s inquest was announced in 2015, during which Salas admitted that he sold guns on board. Yet he worked off the Australian coast for a further eight months before becoming subject to a ‘red flag’ alert.

Speaking to Safety at Sea, chair of the senate committee on transport, Glenn Sterle, said, “The biggest problem we have is no accountability. Two men were killed at sea and a further crew member is missing overboard and no one has been held accountable, even years later.” He added that the current Australian government’s plans to “deregulate shipping as much as possible” meant that the nation’s own shipping capabilities and seafarers could not compete with flag of convenience ships, particularly on wages.

Sterle expressed concern that the committee report, which includes a recommendation for a comprehensive whole-of-government review into the potential economic, security, and environmental risks presented by flag-of-convenience shipping, will be ignored by the government. This is given credence by a dissenting report in May, written by senators Barry O’Sullivan, Chris Back, and David Bushby that rebuffed many of the committee’s concerns and argued that there was “compelling evidence that Australia's transport security regime was robust”. Sterle maintained that he would continue to campaign with the Maritime Union of Australia to resolve these security issues.

Contact Tanya Blake or follow her on twitter @Tanya_Blake

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