Turkey’s maritime laws and IMO conventions

Albeit slightly late, Turkey has nevertheless finally started to accede to and ratify a number of international sea conventions to align its maritime laws and legal framework with norms and standards developed by the London-based International Maritime Organization (IMO), a special UN body established to ensure safety at sea and protection of marine habitat. For decades Turkey has approached with suspicion some of these agreements covering the sea, especially the 1982 UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), citing problems over maritime delimitation between itself and Greece in the Aegean Sea.

Although Turkey’s concerns were understandable for UNCLOS, there are many other conventions that Turkey needed to sign and ratify in order to protect its interests in the sea but it has simply chosen not to do so. If you ask me, it does not make sense for Turkey to shy away from international obligations covering accidents, salvage operations, search and rescue operations and safety regulations in the sea when it has 7,200 kilometers of coastline, almost three times the length of its land borders, on all three sides of its landmass. In recent years, this “going nowhere” attitude has changed and the Turkish government has decided to accede to many IMO conventions. When needed, it simply included “opt-out” clauses in treaties that made reference to the UNCLOS. For example, for the 2001 International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage (BUNKER), which the government submitted to Parliament for approval, Turkey declared that it disassociated itself from the references to the UNCLOS made in the preamble of the convention.

Considering that 64,000 vessels carrying some 150 million tons of hazardous cargo (oil, LPG, LNG, chemicals, nuclear waste and many others) have passed through the straits in 2011, carrying a significant risk of a possible spill and a major fire, Turkey should have ratified these agreements a long time ago. But as the saying goes, it is better late than never. The European Union deserves special credit for prodding Turkey into adopting a series reforms to overhaul its safety benchmarks in maritime laws. Thanks to the cooperation with the EU, Turkey moved up from the “grey” list to the prestigious “white” list of the Paris Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control (Paris MoU) classification in 2008 and has subsequently continued to stay on the “white” list. This has saved Turkey from millions of dollars in lost revenue and higher insurance premiums when detentions of vessels were reduced to 4.35 percent even though it is still above the EU average, which was 1.78 percent in 2010. The detention rate for Turkish vessels increased slightly to 4.6 percent in 2011.

We are finally reaping the benefits of the Turkish government’s bold November 2010 decision to harmonize its laws with the IMO conventions and regulations. When Ankara had volunteered to become a member of the IMO’s voluntary Member States Audit Scheme (VIMSAS), it practically pledged to sign and ratify all relevant maritime safety conventions. The Transportation Ministry even set up a special board to monitor the process of adoption of all maritime conventions, and recently it seems to be performing well, pushing a number of IMO conventions through Parliament.

At the request of the government in the new legislative session, the Turkish Parliament has started to examine a number of maritime conventions in the commissions before sending them to the assembly floor for their likely approval. One such important convention is the 1989-dated International Convention on Salvage, which the Foreign Affairs Commission unanimously voted to adopt on March 14, 2012. The convention ensures sea safety and protection of marine habitat and brings further protections and benefits to Turkey. One such benefit is awarding special compensation for environmental damages to one member country when salvaging a ship and cargo that belong to another flag country. It covers substantial damages to human health and marine life or resources in coastal or inland waters or adjacent areas that were caused by pollution, contamination, fire, explosion or similar major incidents.

Turkey has suffered much from environmental disasters caused by maritime accidents in its seas. One such major incident occurred in 1979 when a Romanian-flagged ship, the Independenta, loaded with 94,600 tons of oil, collided with the Greek-flagged Evriyali in the Bosporus, resulting in the deaths of 43 crew members and a 27-day fire. As a consequence of the accident, the air and sea were severely contaminated and there were long-term ramifications for the health of people and animals. Another major incident happened in March 1994, when the Greek Cypriot tanker Nassia collided with another ship, killing 30 seamen and spilling 20,000 tons of oil into the straits. The resulting oil slick turned the waters of the Bosporus into a raging inferno for five days.
Again, in December 1999 the Russian tanker Volgoneft-248 ran aground and split in two in close proximity to the southwest shores of Istanbul. Approximately 800 tons of the 4,300 tons of fuel oil on board spilled into the Marmara Sea, covering the coast of the Marmara with fuel oil and affecting about five square miles of the sea. There have been many near misses as well. For example, in February 2006, another Russian tanker carrying 86,000 tons of kerosene barely avoided a major incident when it started drifting towards the coast after its wheel became stuck. Had it crashed ashore, it would have been one of the worst disasters in the strait.

Acceding to these conventions actually strengthens Turkey’s position when it comes to putting further restrictions on heavy traffic in the narrow passageways of the straits. Because the outdated 1936 Treaty of Montreux describes the straits as an international waterway, it limits the mandate of the Turkish authorities to regulate commercial traffic even though there are legitimate environmental concerns expressed by the Turkish government. The shipping traffic in the İstanbul and the Çanakkale straits also causes air pollution because of the high emissions from the low quality diesel fuel used by the tankers. According to one study published last year, air pollution from shipping traffic passing through the straits had increased 10,000-fold in comparison to vehicular pollution.

The maritime conventions that Turkey is set to ratify bring extra obligations to shipping line operators as well as to flag states.

On March 14, 2012, the Foreign Affairs Commission also adopted the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) and the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS-88,) as amended in 1988, and sent them to the Parliament floor for a final debate. On Dec. 22, 2011, the commission also approved the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR), as amended in 1998, and the 1965 Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL). They are all waiting on the General Assembly agenda for debate. The commission has yet to review the BUNKER agreement and the 2004 International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments (BWM).

Turkey is already party to some IMO conventions regarding the international compensation for damage caused by oil spills from tankers. One is the Civil Liability Convention (CLC 92) and the other is the Fund Convention (Fund 92). It ratified the 2005 Protocol to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA) in 2009. As of the end of March 2012, Turkey had only ratified 23 IMO conventions out of total 63. It needs to perform much better than that.

We have to keep in mind that the modernization of Turkish maritime laws with the accession to IMO conventions also helps raise Turkey’s clout in the 40-member IMO Council, the executive arm of the organization. In the 27th session of the IMO Assembly in November 2011, Turkey obtained the support of 126 countries out of the 155 participating member countries and was re-elected to the IMO Council under category “C,” which groups together countries that have special interests in maritime transport or navigation in the world. Having a seat at the IMO Council comes with extra responsibilities on the part of Turkey, which are to ensure shipping security and safety as well as protection of the marine environment. To do that, you have be party to most international treaties promoted by the IMO. It seems Turkey is doing just that.

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