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United Nations: Treaty on Shipbreaking

(May 26, 2009) On May 15, 2009, a new treaty on shipbreaking was signed in Hong Kong by 66 countries, including Australia, Brazil, China, and South Africa. The treaty was sponsored by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations specialized agency with responsibility for safety and security at sea and prevention of marine pollution from ships. The treaty concerns the process of recycling ships, which can expose workers to hazardous substances such as asbestos and mercury. It requires owners of vessels to provide a list of materials aboard ships before they are recycled. Most of the work in the process is done by unskilled laborers in China, Turkey, and the countries of south Asia, and there are frequent injuries to the workers, including accidents that cause them to lose their lives or their limbs. The industry is a large one, providing employment for tens of thousands of people; IMO estimates that over 10,000 vessels of 500 tons gross weight or more were recycled from 1990 to 2006. (Huw Griffith, Dozens of Nations Sign Treaty on Shipbreaking, AFP, May 15, 2009, available at; Conference to Adopt Ship Recycling Convention Opens in Hong Kong, IMO website, May 12, 2009, available at

Environmental activists, such as Ingvild Jenssen, director of Platform on Shipbreaking, an umbrella organization of more than 100 nongovernmental groups, have denounced the treaty because it does not ban “beaching,” the practice of dumping ships at high tide and allowing them to drift back to beaches to be dismantled. Jensen argues:

The new convention on ship recycling adopted today won't stop a single toxic ship from being broken on the beach of a developing country. It legitimises the infamous breaking yards of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and actually rewards these exploitive operations while punishing those companies that have invested in safer and cleaner methods. (AFP, supra.)

IMO spokesman Lee Adamson defended the treaty as a move to deal realistically with an important, multi-million dollar industry, stating that it was “a tremendous step forward in terms of health and safety for workers in the industry and for protection of the environment from end-of-life ships — it will set standards where none previously existed.” (Id.)