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IMO confronts fraudulent vessel registrations

The global maritime regulator will ask governments to combat fake vessel registrations and registries by getting directly involved in the process. A new publicly available domain would include information of state-sanctioned registries, with governments set to discuss the proposal in London between March 27 and 29

The organisation wants governments to provide official information on national registries through embassies in the UK

THE International Maritime Organization is seeking to clamp down on fraudulent vessel registrations and rogue national flag registries operating without the knowledge of governments they claim to represent.

According to documents due to be discussed the IMO’s Legal Committee (LEG) in two weeks, fraudulent registration companies, which operate all over the world and have authentic-looking websites, are offering fake vessel registration on behalf of fake national registries.

“It is often difficult for States which are victims of the fraud to trace these companies,” the IMO secretariat paper explains.

While the problem has existed for several years, heightened concerns regarding sanctions evasion and companies seeking to hide illicit activity have prompted a number of proposals to clamp down on the problem with tightened diplomatic channels being created to aid transparency.

According to IMO papers seen by Lloyd’s List, several countries face a heightened problem of either fraudulent vessel registrations or fraudulent registries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, which in 2017 said it had 73 vessels that had been registered without the knowledge of its maritime administration.

Tanzania also reported in a separate submission to the LEG that it had identified 26 different vessels fraudulently flying its flag between 2016 and 2019.

The African nation has also been hit by a fraudulent registry. The Philtex Corporation, with whom it collaborated until 2014, continued to illegally register ships and provide fake certificate renewals on behalf of Tanzania.

Other states facing similar challenges listed by the IMO are the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Maldives, Nauru, Samoa and Vanuatu.

Last year, port state control organisation Paris MoU listed a total of 13 flag states as having the world’s worst safety records between 2015 and 2017. Two of those states were also identified by the IMO as facing registration fraud woes; Tanzania and Vanuatu.

The LEG, which convenes in London in two weeks, will discuss measures the organisation can take to address the problem. 

The IMO’s Secretariat has suggested that all IMO member states submit contact details and information of the officially recognised registries in their country, of their official branches abroad and of their relevant staff. 

“The creation of a database by IMO would therefore be a one-stop information centre where the information for all flags could be available in one place,” the secretariat said.

This publicly accessible “register of registries”, as the IMO secretariat called it, would help inform owners, operators and everyone else concerned on how to legally register their vessels with the appropriate people.

Under the secretariat’s proposal, countries would have to supply that information to the IMO through their embassies or high commissions in the United Kingdom, or through ones based in other countries if they are not represented in the UK.

The information would be fed to and be available on the IMO’s Global Integrated Shipping Information System platform, which holds all the data around registered ships and companies.

The United States agreed in its own proposal that GISIS should include a publicly accessible domain where official registration information of each state is available.

The UAE suggested that the IMO Assembly, consisting of all member states, adopt this procedure as a resolution, therefore indicating its support on an IMO-wide level, not just a committee one.

Discussions on eradicating fraud during last year’s LEG meeting resulted in a call for a “multi-pronged” approach to deal with the problem. The last LEG meeting agreed to wrap up the conversation and produce measures by the end of 2021.

Sanctioned ships under the microscope

While the IMO pays special attention to the afore-mentioned countries, the US stressed in its own document that the problem was not exclusive to these states.

Although the US pointed out a number of damaging consequences of fraudulent registration, such as posing a threat to the environment and inflicting financial and reputational damage, it highlighted one particular problem.

“Finally, experience has shown that the raison d’être of fraudulent registries is to conceal illicit activity on board vessels, including activities prohibited by United Nations sanctions,” the US said in the paper.

Countries seeking to evade sanctions may make physical alterations to the ship or tamper with key identification elements, like the IMO number and the Automatic Identification System signals, the US added.

Beyond enhancing GISIS, the US wants the IMO to create a database in which countries can exchange information about fraudulent registrations. It also called on the organisation to collaborate with the United Nations Security Council to set up a database comprising IMO numbers and vessel names subject to UN Security Council resolutions.

“While the United Nations Security Council maintains a list of individuals subject to sanctions, it is not easily searchable in relation to IMO numbers,” they said.

Political grief around vessel registrations is not constrained to fraudulent operators, however. Ukraine also called on port state control authorities to confirm a vessel’s flag information with GISIS. The country is particularly focused on the occupied territory of Crimea, from which authorities have been issuing certificates, which Ukraine stressed were null and void.

“The Ukrainian side reiterates that any documents issued after 15 July 2014 by the so-called ‘harbour masters’ of the seaports in the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine, are null and void, have no legal effect and, by their very nature, should be considered unlawful,” it said in a submission to the LEG.

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