Legal assistance to the North Pacific
Sunday, 27 June 2010

My recent visit to the North Pacific in March 2010 highlighted, amongst other things, the lack of human resources in the field of maritime law within the governments of Palau, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and Marshall Islands.

The acute lack of maritime lawyers has contributed to delays in promulgating necessary maritime regulations in some jurisdictions. Attorney General’s (AGs) offices are short staffed with few resources. Manpower is frequently stretched to the limit to deal with research, legal opinion, and series of meetings and not to mention court work which usually takes precedence over other legal work. It is almost impossible to have lawyers specialise in other non-traditional areas of law, let alone maritime.

Maritime law is just one of the many areas or subjects of law that lawyers in the Pacific Island countries (PICs) need to deal with. There are also competing interests within different government agencies to have lawyers’ undivided attention on their respective legal matters. There are also many other factors that pull PICs lawyers away from AGs offices such as joining the private sector or migrating overseas to greener pastures. The result of all this as far as maritime matters is concerned is little or no attention at all to maritime related issues. And this is rather unusual for PICs due to dependency on shipping for imports and exports.

In the case of Palau, industries such as tourism usually take priority over shipping. Increased awareness is needed to highlight the critical role of shipping in trade and economic growth. This factor also needs to be reflected in the country’s national plans. The increasing focus on maritime safety and security is also increasing responsibilities on ports and maritime administrations to step up compliance measures. Implementation measures need to consider updating outdated legislation and regulations as well as consolidating various pieces of laws that may be scattered inconveniently. The maritime sector’s development hinges on the overnment stepping in to take a more proactive role in raising the sector’s profile and providing the support it needs.

FSM on the other hand is seriously considering joining the International Maritime Organization (IMO) even though it already has laws that make reference to IMO conventions and practices without officially acceding to the conventions. It may be technically correct to do so for many reasons, such as to keep the requisite standards, but one can’t enforce any of these conventions on state parties. The unique federal system whereby the national government has certain responsibilities as opposed to state governments and the fact the constitution is not clear on the issue of enforcement jurisdictions within maritime zones tend to compound legal progress for FSM as far as maritime law is concerned.

The Marshall Islands also has similar limitations as discussed above although domestic shipping is facing difficulties in terms of lack of resources that are needed to maintain and sustain services to outer atolls. Its domestic shipping laws are in need of review as well and SPC’s Economic Development Division through the Pacific International Maritime Law Association (PIMLA) has recently rendered assistance. Marshall Islands Open Registry however is performing well through the services of the Trust Company based in Virginia, United States America that generates revenue for the government. More is needed for domestic shipping and lessons learnt from the recent maritime incidents would be a stern warning and reminder to all maritime administration in the region that proper policies and regulations need to put in place and more importantly, enforced.

What is needed to remedy this little interest in maritime matters is to continue disseminating relevant information to schools and government offices in a bid to create greater awareness and to reinforce that shipping is just as important as any other sector out there.


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