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Where do liabilities lie in maritime incidents and do flag states matter?

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As Sri Lanka deals with its worst marine ecological disaster after the sinking of a Singapore-registered container ship, questions have been raised about who bears the responsibilities in maritime incidents. The stricken ship, X-Press Pearl, sailed under the flag of Singapore. It is owned by Singapore-based shipping group X-Press feeders, which has offices around the world.

The vessel was sailing from India to Colombo when it caught fire on May 20 off the west coast of Sri Lanka. It burned for 13 days before the blaze was finally put out.But it left behind a huge environmental impact, with possible oil spills and tonnes of plastic waste already washed ashore. The ship’s cargo included 25 tonnes of nitric acid, sodium hydroxide and other chemicals.The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said on Jun 2 that as the flag state, it is communicating with the Sri Lankan authorities and other parties to minimise the environmental impact of the incident.

 Maritime experts said there are several considerations in the decision to register a vessel under a certain country or territory – and the flag state does not typically bear the liabilities in incidents such as that of the X-Press Pearl. International law requires every merchant ship which is participating in international trade to be registered with a country. A vessel is bound by the laws and regulatory requirements of the flag state, which is responsible for the enforcement of standards.Flag states have certain duties under Article 94 of the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea.

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