Eighty percent of the world's goods moves on ships. At any
given time, more than 80,000 ships steam across the oceans of
the earth, carrying toys, cars, grains, processed foods, coal,
oil, clothing and thousands upon thousands of other products
whose journey into our shops and our homes we take for granted.
Ships are the gears of the global economy. No ships, no global
Yet underneath this vast, international universe of moving
parts is often chaos. Shipping is one of the world's least-regulated
industries, and it operates on principles that date back to
the 18th century. But if a ship gets into trouble at sea today,
more is at stake than Spanish bullion or English tea. Cargoes
like oil, chemicals, even nuclear waste are transported on the
high seas, with the potential to devastate the environment and
harm tens of thousands of people if something goes wrong.
Little oversight and poor accountability in the shipping industry
have created a maze of legal trapdoors behind which less reputable
owners may hide. Substantial regulation is prevented in part
by foreign "flagging," a policy that permits ship owners to
register their vessels in countries that have far less stringent
safety and labor requirements than those of their home country.
These ship registries -- known in the trade as open registers
and by critics as flags of convenience -- have led to a rupture
between the actual authority of a nation-state and its symbol,
the flag. The overwhelming majority of ship owners are based
in major maritime powers -- Greece, the United States, Norway,
Great Britain and Japan -- yet most of their ships are registered
under a foreign flag, in countries such as Liberia, Panama,
the Bahamas, Malta, Honduras and Trinidad, which offer barely
a veneer of national authority over the ships flying their flags.
Offshore front companies further obscure the identity of ship
owners, making it difficult and time-consuming to hold owners
legally or financially accountable for damage caused by their
ships. The legal owners of the Prestige, for example,
turned out not to be the Greek family trust to whom profits
from the ship's operations were sent, but an offshore company
registered in Monrovia, Liberia, called Mare Shipping. Its sole
asset is now at the bottom of the Atlantic, 130 miles off the
coast of Spain, valueless except to the mollusks clinging to
its rusting hull.
In this interactive atlas, trace the international trails
of some of the more controversial ships registered under foreign
flags. Read about five flagging nations: Bahamas, Belize, Liberia,
Panama and Tonga. The examples highlight some of the industry's
most pressing problems, from labor conflict and environmental
risk to piracy and potential terrorism.
Belize: Where Have All the Fish
Bahamas: Cruising a Sea of Labor
Panama: Home of "Convenience"
Tonga: Closed for Security Concerns
Liberia: Ruling the Waves From
"Hiding Behind the Flag" was reported by
for Investigative Reporting (CIR). Introduction by Mark
Schapiro. Reporting and writing by CIR Associate Reporter Kari
Lundgren. Editor for CIR is Editorial Director Dan Noyes.
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