The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has launched a campaign to bring down the Liberian shipping flag, which it accuses of bank-rolling a savage conflict in Sierra Leone. At least one ship owner has already been shaken by the allegations surrounding the flag and says it is looking at alternatives.
"The war in Sierra Leone has been a catalogue of cruelty," said an ITF statement on Friday, adding "The ITF has invited shipping companies...to break heir links with the Liberian flag."
ITF General Secretary David Cockroft said: "We're not contemplating industrial action (against ships flying the Liberian flag) at the moment, but we're not ruling it out in the future."
Liberia receives tens of millions of dollars each year from respectable ship operators such as Royal Caribbean International and Germany's Hamburg Sud, seeking a favorable commercial environment for shipping in return for cash.
Royal Caribbean said it was taking the issue seriously. "We've been in discussions with the (U.S.) State Department and we're considering other alternatives," Royal Caribbean's Lynn
Martenstein said. Cockroft said the union was currently taking a softly, softly approach in the hope that ship owners would abandon the Liberian jurisdiction "at their own convenience."
The war in Sierra Leone began as an outgrowth of Liberia's civil war and was fuelled by President Charles Taylor, accused by the United Nations of selling guns to Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in return for illicit diamonds. In May the RUF started releasing some of its child fighters, some as young as six, who brought back stories of widespread torture and mass amputations.
The Liberia International Shipping and Corporate Registry (LISCR), which manages the flag, said it funded about one third of the budget of the Liberian government. But it rejected allegations that the funds were being channelled to Taylor or the RUF. The allegations first appeared in December in a report to the United Nations Security Council by a Panel of Experts on Sierra Leone.
It was repeated in May by the register's previous manager, IRI, during a commercial dispute filed to the Supreme Court of the State of New York. LISCR's CEO Yoram Cohen refuted the U.N. report. "Let's see any of the Panel of Experts making those accusations in the U.S. where we can get jurisdiction over them," he said, shortly after launching a counter action against IRI.
The ITF said it respected the way LISCR had run the flag: "LISCR have done their best to keep up the standards... but on this occasion even they can't ignore the role of the national flag," it said
LISCR said the campaign would not affect its ability to manage the flag.
In May, the U.N. imposed sanctions on the Liberian government, banning diamond exports and preventing the West African country's leaders from international travel - sanctions Liberia said were misguided. The flag was only mentioned in passing. Four members of the Liberian maritime administration -- Benoni Urey, Ruprah Sanjiman, Dennis Wisseh and Gerald Cooper -- were named on the list of those banned from travelling abroad. - (Reuters)