A balance has to be struck between the commercial advantages of shipowners' selecting a particular flag state and the need to discourage the use of flags that do not meet their international obligations, warns the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).
Speaking at the 14th Russian Register Seminar on Quality Shipping in St Petersburg, Simon Bennett, ICS Director of External Relations, said: "Shipping is one of the safest and most environmentally friendly modes of transport, yet several high profile casualties have prompted questions from politicians and the media about the performance of flag states. There is understandable concern about shipping companies' use of flags that may not comply fully with international regulations."
However, he stressed that distinctions between open registers and so-called national or traditional maritime flags are unhelpful. "The industry's Flag State Performance Table suggests that open registers such as the Bahamas, Liberia and the Marshal Islands enjoy the same very high standards of performance and responsibility as flags such as Denmark or the United Kingdom," he said.
ICS has previously developed Shipping Industry Guidelines on Flag State Performance, to accompany its annual Flag State Performance Table. The Guidelines outline what a responsible shipowner should expect from a responsible flag state, including ratification and implementation of core maritime conventions. The Guidelines are intended to encourage shipowners to examine whether a flag state has sufficient substance before using it and to encourage ship owners and operators to put pressure on their flag administrations to effect any necessary improvements.
Mr Bennett told delegates in Russia: "The industry makes no apology for subjecting flag states to scrutiny, in the same way that ships and company procedures are rightly subjected to inspection by governments. Our over-riding interest in promoting high performing flag states is that they are less likely to tolerate sub-standard operators. This small minority of shipping companies enjoys an unfair commercial advantage over the vast majority of fully compliant operators and damages the overall reputation of the industry.
"While it is shipping companies that have primary responsibility for the safe operation of their ships and the welfare of their crews, it is the flag state that must enforce the rules," Mr Bennett said.