US causing fear, say shipowners

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 September, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong shipowners are urging 'clarity and specifics' from the US treasury department as it intensifies pressure on the local industry to effectively shut out Iran's national shipping line from the city.

Hong Kong Shipowners Association managing director Arthur Bowring said treasury department officials provided a list of 19 Hong Kong-registered ships they believe could be linked to Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) but more information was needed on that and other concerns.

'Being deliberately vague may help their agenda by spreading fear and getting the Hong Kong shipping industry to err on the side of caution,' Bowring said.

'But it doesn't help us ... it really makes life difficult for shipowners and others in the industry who have got to do business and figure out precisely where the dangers are. Some of these ships may have once been owned by IRISL but that does not mean they are still linked.'

The treasury's new terrorism and financial intelligence undersecretary, David Cohen, travelled to Hong Kong and Beijing this week to urge a more proactive approach to implementing UN sanctions against Iran passed in June last year. The US has also blacklisted 20 local front companies for IRISL links.

Cohen's team met local shipping figures and bankers as well as government officials in both cities.

The UN sanctions include the need for vigilance and reporting against IRISL ships, which a committee in 2008 declared had aided Iran's nuclear and military programmes. But Hong Kong shipping lawyers said the sanctions do not prevent the fleet calling in Hong Kong.

Cohen said he wanted the ships ideally 'completely shut out', even from basic operations such as refuelling, to further squeeze IRISL, which is now effectively barred from Europe. He also questioned their insurance - a key safety issue - noting their Iranian insurers could no longer lay off their risks internationally.

A Marine Department statement confirmed that 'certain issues' were exchanged with the treasury delegation and outlined local regulatory efforts to implement the UN sanctions.

While it did not specify what action would be taken after this week's meetings, the department noted that: 'If a Hong Kong-registered ship is found to be in violation of UN sanctions enforced in Hong Kong, the Director of Marine has the power to deregister the ship.'

It said that all ships visiting Hong Kong, regardless of flag, had to undergo the same port clearance procedures and meet the same safety requirements, including proper insurance coverage.