Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - In a landmark deal, the United States and Liberian governments have signed an agreement that will allow U.S. authorities to board and search Liberia-registered vessels suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction.
The agreement, part of President Bush's Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), is significant because, except for Panama, more of the world's merchant ships fly the Liberian "flag of convenience" than any other.
Flag of convenience countries - other key ones include Cyprus, Malta and the Bahamas - offer maritime flag registration to ship owners from another country.
In an era of terrorism, and with reports emerging sporadically about al Qaeda using cargo ships to carry explosives and operatives around the world, flags of convenience pose significant security concerns.
The PSI, launched by Bush last year, aims to prevent rogue states and terrorist groups from trading in nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and related technology by stopping and searching suspect ships or planes.
Eleven core PSI nations have held a series of exercises since last September to prepare for such boardings, and it recently emerged that an actual interception - by Italian and German authorities in the Mediterranean - had prevented sensitive uranium-enrichment equipment from reaching Libya.
In that case, the ship was German-owned.
Experts say that, to operate legally, authorities acting under the PSI will have to board and search only ships flying no flag; ships registered in a PSI member-country; or ships flying a "flag of convenience" of a nation which agrees to authorize a boarding.
This week's agreement with Liberia "provides authority on a bilateral basis to board sea vessels suspected of carrying illicit shipments of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, or related materials," the State Department said in a statement Thursday.
It hailed the agreement as a tangible example of the type of nonproliferation cooperation Bush called for in a speech at National Defense University Wednesday.
In his address, the president called for the PSI to be expanded beyond the core group, and for wider international cooperation to counter proliferation networks like the Pakistani one uncovered recently.
The Liberian International Ship and Corporate Registry said Thursday the agreement between the U.S. and Liberia is a positive achievement and one that should give ship-owners registered in Liberia "a tremendous sense of comfort."
"This provides effective protection of these vessels by the world's largest Navy," chief operating officer Scott Bergeron said by phone from Virginia.
If U.S. investigative authorities believed a Liberian-registered ship was carrying WMD or related cargo, it would contact the Liberian Registry "to discuss whether a boarding is appropriate," he explained.
"We're getting this free protection, if you will, from the U.S. Navy. We see it as completely positive. This is not something that's going to hinder commerce; in the long run it's designed to facilitate commerce."
The agreement did not authorize boardings in advance, Bergeron said, but established a working relationship under which the U.S. would contact Liberia, via the Registry, about concerns, and decisions would be made "on a case-by-case basis."
He said the agreement with Liberia would be used as a model for future agreements with other countries which the U.S. would now approach.
"I think the U.S. is quite confident that they will see many countries sign up to this."
Ship owners generally use "flags of convenience" because registration in countries like Liberia is cheaper than operating under, say, the U.S. flag.
Critics say many of these countries also require less information, enforce lower safety standards, and operate with fewer restrictions, although Liberia has "an international reputation as a quality registry," according to the U.S. Maritime Administration.
In testimony before Congress in 2002, Maritime Administrator William Schubert said developed countries lost about half of their general vessel tonnage between 1980 and 1998 to registries such as Liberia, Panama, Cyprus, the Bahamas, and Malta, which now account for about 60 percent of the world merchant fleet's capacity.
The core PSI member nations are the U.S., Japan, Australia, Britain, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Poland. Bush said in his speech this week that Canada, Singapore and Norway had also agreed to participate.
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