Baskut Tuncak: “As long as the world allows shipping companies to choose the rules they want to abide by, regulation is all but impossible”

(c) Pradeep Shukla


Baskut Tuncak is the UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes. As part of this mandate, he has devoted considerable attention to the issue of shipbreaking. “In shipbreaking yards, workers often are exposed to toxic chemicals including asbestos, dusts and fibres, highly toxic industrial chemicals which have been banned for decades but are still present in ships, as well as lead, mercury, arsenic or cadmium in paints, coatings and electrical equipment,” Tuncak’s predecessor wrote in a special report on the subject in 2009. “Workers are often without protective equipment to reduce exposure. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals increases the risk of developing slow-progressing but fatal diseases, which may not become apparent until many years after exposure,” the report went on.

That was 2009. A lot of shipbreaking yards claim to have improved their yards and practices since then, at least in Alang. “Much may have changed, though as far as I know a majority of shipbreaking yards in South Asia have changed little or not at all; the basic problems persist,” Tuncak said when I spoke to him on the phone in November. “The very practice of beaching vessels and breaking them on the beach remains problematic. Yard owners and shipping companies claim that the improvements they are doing make it possible to prevent environmental damage, but so far there is no scientific proof to back up that claim.”

The Hong Kong Convention is central to the industry’s claims of progress and their talk of supposedly sound beaching practices. This international convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships was concluded in 2009 but has only been ratified by six countries and thus hasn’t entered into force yet. Still, it is being used as a standard ship owners should strive toward and as an excuse to claim good practices. “That is very regrettable,” Tuncak said.” Not because the convention is still pending, but “because the HKC aims to replace an existing and very good framework for breaking and recycling ships – the Basel Convention,” he said. “It seems to me that the Hong Kong Convention was only brought about to undercut Basel and to lower its established standards of protection for workers and environment.”

The driving force behind the HKC is the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the United Nations specialised agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine and atmospheric pollution by ships. Tuncak certainly sees an important role for the IMO, but points to the fact that the organisation is also industry-focused. It consequently shouldn’t be the sole or main party to decide on issues with very profound impacts on human rights, biodiversity and other environmental concerns.

Tuncak also has serious questions about the certificates of compliance to the HKC. “I have closely studied the governance structure of one of the main certification companies, ClassNK, and that shows clearly that these private companies are not at all independent and should rather be seen as extensions of the shipping industry,” he said. “The question, then, is what the authority is of such a company and of the certificates they deliver.”

A beach by any other name is still a beach

During the interview, Tuncak often prefaced his answers with phrases like “as far as I know” or “the information I have”. From my own experience, I knew how difficult it is to obtain independent access to Indian shipbreaking yards, so I asked the UN special rapporteur whether he had the information needed to assess the situation. “I would like to do a follow-up visit to India and to Alang, after almost 10 years after my predecessor’s visit. I have signalled that many times to the Indian government, but I don’t get a response to those requests. And without an invitation, I cannot go on an official fact-finding mission, though informal study visits would still be possible,” he said. “But then, how much access would I get? We do collect facts and knowledge through all means available, including unions, NGOs, etc.”

Tuncak saw this lack of transparency as one of the most problematic aspects of the shipbreaking industry and noted that more transparency could give the industry the legitimacy it has so desperately sought. “If all is going well, then why not provide independent access to researchers or journalists? My feeling is that we are being kept out so that the industry can continue working with scant regard for workers, environment and human rights.”

In 2018, the UN special rapporteur put out a report on the human rights implications of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste. Paragraph 40 of that report reads like an unequivocal indictment of large shipping companies. “Workers continue to be exposed to toxic substances, including toxic industrial chemicals and highly hazardous pesticides, when demonstrably less dangerous alternatives exist. Another egregious example of an industry that continues to externalize impacts on poor workers and communities in developing countries by failing to apply the hierarchy is the shipping industry and its practice of shipbreaking.”

That conclusion, Tuncak said, came out of his visit to Denmark and his discussions with Maersk. “Maersk’s competitors did not follow their lead [after they swore off shipbreaking on beaches], which put the Danish company at a competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis companies like MSC, the second-biggest container shipper that continued to use beaches without restrictions,” he explained. “The bottom line remains profits and so there was so much pressure from shareholders that Maersk decided to return to beaching, with a lot of promises of clean practices and better conditions. But, still, a beach is a beach and intertidal breaking remains dirty business.”

The shipping industry is one of the most globalised sectors in the world and it has such a complex structure that local governments and even international bodies have never seemed able to enforce rules and regulations – that is, unless they were written by the industry or seen as beneficial to it. This begs the question: Is regulation of shipbreaking even possible?

“It is possible to set real standards, as the Basel Convention has shown. But by trying to introduce the Hong Kong Convention, or the new EU Ship Recycling Regulation, governments are actively undercutting their own ability to regulate,” Tuncak replied. “And the real Achilles’ heel is always the possibility to swap flags. As long as the world allows shipping companies to choose the flag they fly and thus the rules they want to abide by, regulation is all but impossible and players big and small will continue to dodge the rules and evade their responsibilities.”

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