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Friday, February 13, 2004

The US has struck a deal with Liberia which will allow the Navy to stop and search Liberian flagged vessels on the high seas.

"The boarding agreement 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," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday.

"It's based on the need to stop the proliferation in weapons of mass destruction and means to deliver them," he said.

If a U.S. ship suspects a Liberian vessel is carrying proliferation-related cargo, the captain can request the suspect vessel to confirm its nationality and if needed authorize the boarding, searching and possible detention of the vessel and its cargo, Boucher said.

The vessel has two hours from time of contact to respond.

Under the agreement, a Liberian vessel has similar rights with respect to suspect U.S. vessels.

I think the agreement could use some improvement.

The MSNBC story does not make clear what that last sentence means. Does it mean the (presumably nonexistent) Liberian Navy can stop and search US flagged vessels? Or does it mean that any Liberian vessel can stop any US flagged vessel? The first would be OK (well worth the trade off to be able to stop and board Liberian vessels). The second alternative would be completely unacceptable. It amounts to an open invitation to al Qaeda to charter a Liberian flagged freighter, and intercept, board and take over a US flagged vessel which could then be sailed into A us harbor with complete impunity.

And what about that two hours? The crew has an automatic 120 minutes to dump whatever they want to hide overboard. If the crew of a target vessel will, as a practical matter, know for more than two hours that the Navy is approaching them, then this provision doesn't make any difference. But I can think of several ways to sneak up on a ship at sea: aircraft and submarines (not to mention "stealthed" ships that the Navy is beginning to experiment with).

The other major "flag of convenience" nations are Panama (the most popular), the Bahamas (number three in the flag of convenience race) and Cyprus (number four).

From the MSNBC story linked above:

Panama has no such agreement and isn't currently negotiating one, Deputy Foreign Minister Nivia Rossana Castrellon said in Panama City.

She said the United States had not approached Panama with that request but that Panama was one of nine countries which signed an agreement last year that allows U.S. officials to search cargo once it has been removed from a ship and unloaded to a port.

That works for drugs, but not bombs. If there's a bomb, we can look for it once it has been taken off a Panamanian ship and put in a warehouse or on the dock. I think that might be just a bit too late to do any good, Madam Minister? We should definitely be talking to Panama (indeed, every nation having any ships under its flag) about this, and letting them know that the alternative to reaching a similar agreement is keeping their flagged vessels out of US waters. That might not go down too well with all those owners who have registered there. But then, it would not take too long for all those nice Panamanian flags to be exchanged for Liberian ones.

And Liberian flags are nicer looking, anyway.
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