COUNTRIES which have yet to ratify international conventions providing for compensation against maritime disasters have been urged to do it quickly and not to depend on existing voluntary schemes. International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation managing director Ian White said the voluntary agreements may be phased out by industry by February 1997 and as a result should not be relied upon much longer. ''Therefore countries should get their house in order and ratify the conventions promptly,'' he said at a seminar organised by the Hongkong Shipowners Association. He explained that in the case of a maritime disaster, compensation was paid under a two-tiered structure by four international compensation schemes. They comprised the Civil Liability Convention (CLC); the International Convention on the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage, 1971 (Fund Convention); the Tanker Owners' Voluntary Agreement concerning Liability for Oil Pollution (Tovalop); and the Contract Regarding a Supplement to Tanker Liability for Oil Pollution (Cristal). In the event of an oil spill, the owner would have to pay compensation on a strict liability basis, regardless of whether he was at fault, even though he might be able to get it back through court action later, Mr White said. This compensation would be paid under Tovalop or under CLC, with money coming from P&I (Protection and Indemnity) Clubs - the third party insurers of tanker owners. When that amount of compensation was insufficient, then the owners would look at supplementary layers of compensation that would be met by the Fund Convention or Cristal, he said. Mr White said he did not know any other pollutant in the world - be it radioactive substances, chemical or whatever else - that was so well served by a strict liability compensation system whereby claimants who suffer from oil spills from tankers could get prompt recompense. For example, if Cristal applied to a case, the amount would include the amount paid under Tavalop, he said. And under the Fund Convention, which now applied in 66 countries around the world, compensation was in the region of US$85 million no matter what size the tanker, while those under Cristal could get up to $135 million, he said. Mr White said he wanted to dispel myths in the industry that these amounts of compensation were not sufficient. Aside from the Exxon Valdez, and two or three other cases, the money from the compensation funds had been more than sufficient, he said. He pointed out that any oil spill in US waters was 10 to 15 times more expensive than in other parts of the world. Mr White warned the industry not to be complacent, saying protocols to both the CLC and Fund Convention were agreed in 1984 but failed to come into force. However, last November the countries in the Fund Convention system got together and developed in the International Maritime Organisation, the 1992 protocols to the CLC and Fund Convention, he added.