A U.S.-led initiative to intercept dangerous weapons shipments expanded its reach May 12 after U.S. officials concluded a boarding agreement with a key shipping nation: Panama. The deal reflects Panama’s willingness to allow U.S. officials to inspect ships flying its flag if they are suspected of transporting missiles or nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons or related weapons of mass destruction (WMD) material.
“This agreement sends a clear message to anyone who would traffic in [weapons of mass destruction] that neither Panama nor the United States will stand for the use of their vessels in this type of activity,” Panama’s minister of government and justice, Arnulfo Escalona, said at a Washington signing ceremony. Escalona added that he hoped other states in the Western Hemisphere would follow Panama’s example.
Yet, the agreement’s importance lies less with Panama’s location than with the fact that more ships fly Panama’s flag than that of any other country. The state with the second-most flagged ships, Liberia, signed an agreement with the United States Feb. 11. (See ACT, March 2004.) Together, these two countries and those states that are full participants in the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) account for almost half the world’s commercial shipping tonnage.
Launched May 31, 2003, by President George W. Bush in Krakow, Poland, the PSI is a commitment by 14 states to work individually and collectively to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction to states and nonstate actors of proliferation concern. The group has named Iran and North Korea as two such states.
Intercepting suspected shipments of weapons at sea, on land, and in the air is the most prominent aspect of the initiative’s mission, although members have only acknowledged a single intercept of centrifuge components to Libya last fall. (See ACT, January/February 2004.)
International law constrains the 14 PSI states—Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States—from boarding any vessel at any time. Except under certain circumstances, such as a ship lacking proper identification information, permission must be granted by the state whose flag the ship is flying for it to be legally stopped and searched in international waters.
Shipowners are legally permitted to register ships outside their home country and often choose to do so with so-called flag of convenience states, whose governments are viewed as imposing less stringent rules or charging cheaper fees.
In addition to Panama and Liberia, PSI participants are also seeking to negotiate expedited rules of procedure and pre-approval agreements with other states to board their registered ships. States with large fleets as well as those with harbors or coastal waters near high traffic shipping lanes are of primary interest.
The agreements with Liberia and Panama set out a streamlined process for the United States to obtain authorization to board ships flying either of the two countries’ flags and vice versa. If a boarding request goes unanswered for two hours, it will be treated as consent.
Both agreements are bilateral deals with the United States, but Panama and Liberia may make similar arrangements with other PSI countries.
The announcement comes as PSI participants are planning a June 1 anniversary meeting in Krakow that will bring together representatives of some 60 states endorsing the initiative for a discussion of possible activities.
Some press reports have speculated that Russia may join the PSI at the event. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow said April 23 in Moscow, “We have had productive conversations with Russia about its possible role in the initiative, and are hopeful that Russia will soon join.”