(First published in Norwegian 6 May 2008)
By Erik Hagen
In April [Norwegian news service] Norwatch revealed that the Norwegian insurance company, Skuld, had insured a Chinese carrier which tried to ship 77 tons of weapons and ammunition to the Ministry of Defense in Zimbabwe. The shipment created big headlines all over the world, and Skuld explained to the Chinese shipping company that they opposed the transport.
Now Norwatch can reveal that Skuld has ensured yet another controversial ship. The Greek bulk carrier ‘Niki T’ arrived Sunday morning at the Australian island state of Tasmania fully loaded with phosphate rock from the occupied country of Western Sahara. The Moroccan plunder of phosphate in Western Sahara is a violation of international law, and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs advises against the participation in this trade.
This, however, does not prevent the participation of the Norwegian shipping companies in the trade. Previously Norwatch has revealed that both the Norwegian owned shipping company Gearbulk and Oslo Stock Exchange registered Jinhui have transported phosphate to Australia and New Zealand.
This is the first time that it has been discovered that also Norwegian insurance companies are involved. Skuld has provided a so-called protection and indemnity insurance, which covers damages to a third parties. Skuld provided a similar insurance for the Chinese ship carrying weapons.
"Today we provide insurance for about 6500 ships. We calculate that each of them carry between 10 and 40 shiploads every year, maybe even more. We are talking about 20-25 000 shipments per year. Knowing what they carry and where they are located is nearly impossible" said Executive Vice President Eric Jacobs to Norwatch.
Used in fertilizer production
Right now, the bulk carrier ‘Niki T’ is at the harbour of Risdon near Hobart, capital of the Australian state of Tasmania. During the next few days it will unload the phosphate from Western Sahara.
"I saw the ship moor outside the harbour on Sunday, explains Glenn Towler, a Hobart resident, today on the phone to Norwatch.
Towler is a local ship spotter who takes photos of the boats in the harbour. The last few days he has photographed ‘Niki T’ unloading the phosphate onto trucks on land. From there the trucks drive up a hill to where the importer is located. The importer is a fertilizer company named Impact Fertilizers. The photograph above was taken yesterday afternoon.
"Undermines the UN-process"
The Australian solidarity organization, Australia Western Sahara Association (AWSA), says to Norwatch that they are very critical towards this kind of shipments.
"To be involved in these shipments is very unethical", stated Cate Lewis, a member of AWSA to Norwatch.
"We are aware of the fact that the Norwegian government discourages this kind of trade, and had hoped that all Norwegian companies, even the insurance companies, would abide by this", said Lewis.
Earlier today Lewis sent a letter to the Australian importer of the phosphate.
"Accepting a phosphate rock shipment from Moroccan authorities in the occupied Western Sahara is a serious violation of fundamental ethical norms and international law. It gives the impression of political legitimacy to a brutal occupation, and undermines the UN peace process to find a solution to the conflict”, states the letter, of which Norwatch has a copy.
“Please put further importations on hold until the conflict in Western Sahara is settled", the letter concludes.
In violation of international law
"It is evident that if the phosphate trade continues without approval from the people of Western Sahara, it violates international law", stated Hans Corell, former UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, to Norwatch last year.
In 2002 he made an analysis on the legality of French-American oil exploration in occupied Western Sahara for the UN Security Council. Corell therefore is considered one of the worlds’ leading legal experts in this area. His analysis is often used as a legal reference relative to other business activities in Western Sahara.
It seems evident that Moroccan business in Western Sahara contravenes the interests of the people of the occupied country. Leading Sahrawi representatives and activists who Norwatch has spoken to during the last few years are very critical towards this business activity. When Morocco occupied the country in 1975, almost all of the Sahrawi workers were fired from their positions and replaced by Moroccan settlers.
Covers the entire world
Skuld says that it will be very difficult to place restrictions on the movements of the ships. This would require updated knowledge of every conflict in the world.
"The political situation in many countries changes quickly", Jacobs stated.
"In theory we insure ships all over the world, but of course there are areas that it has been decided we cannot cover", Jacobs said to Norwatch.
As an example he refers to South Africa during the apartheid regime, when Skuld allegedly limited its service to the shipping companies. The embargo against South Africa was supported by the UN Security Council. However, similar sanctions have not been established when it comes to business within occupied Western Sahara.
The advice given by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Norwegian companies, as in the cases of Burma and Western Sahara, are difficult to relate to, according to Jacobs.
"With this kind of advice it becomes more complicated, as we have no authority over the ship. Unless Greek authorities place restrictions on this trade, it is difficult for us to give instructions to the owners", said Jacobs.
"Even though in theory we do not appreciate shipments to or from unstable countries or regimes, it is difficult to do anything about it", he stated.
"The trade in phosphate from Western Sahara is probably in violation of international law, will this have any significance when you consider insuring bulk carriers in the future?"
"It is too early and too difficult to say anything about this right now. There are many interpretations of international law, and legally it is extremely complicated. Unless there are crystal clear recommendations backed by the entire international community, it is difficult for us, as a small insurance company, to make such demands to our clients", said Jacobs.
"We must appeal to all of our clients to abide by existing laws and regulations as well as general ethical standards, but we cannot police the shipping companies that we insure. That is a task that belongs to someone else", he said.
‘Niki T’ was built in 1997 and is owned by the Greek shipping company Tsangaris Bros.