The Cruel Ships [Investigation]
Almost two years since the Beirut port explosion, substandard ships continue to find their way to Lebanon.
With a corroded and damaged hull, the Leader M called on the port of Sidon in southern Lebanon last April.
Built in 1977, when the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) was in its second year, the Togo-flagged general cargo ship (IMO 7526699) is one of several deficient vessels that enter Lebanese waters every year. Deficiencies imply a ship does not comply with relevant international maritime standards or conventions, whether in terms of structural conditions, safety of life, navigation’s safety, or even pollution prevention.
For this report, I have gathered detailed information about the Leader M and similar ships from MarineTraffic, Equasis, and organizations focusing on substandard ships and the cruel treatment of animals transported by sea. I have also spoken to highly informed local sources in the shipping industry who preferred to remain anonymous. Before I share my analysis, I am going to explain a few maritime practices and regulations and summarize the existing maritime regulations in Lebanon for those who are unfamiliar with this industry.
Open Ship Registries
Many of the vessels I have tracked are registered under flags that are on the blacklist of the Paris Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)due to poor performance. Countries that have open ship registries, such as Togo, allow owners to register ships under their flags although there is no “genuine link between the flag state and the vessel.” The open registry systems attract ship owners who are trying to avoid taxes and seeking minimal regulations and inspections and the freedom to hire cheap labor.
“The problem is sub-standard ships, as well as the register that fails to provide structures for proper inspections and regulatory oversight,” Michelle Wiese Bockmann, a shipping and energy commodities analyst at Lloyd’s List told me.
There are several open ship registries with a particularly weak record of enforcing international regulations.
The Rhosus (IMO 8630344), the substandard ship linked to the devastating explosion at the port of Beirut in 2020, was registered under the flag of Moldova, which is also on the blacklist of the Paris MoU. The vessel called at the Port of Beirut in 2013 with a cargo of 2,750 tons of hazardous ammonium nitrate. At the port, the Rhosus technically failed to load some machineries as its hatch covers almost collapsed under the load. The owner proceeded to abandon the ship and its cargo, file for bankruptcy, and leave the seafarers on board stranded for months without pay. The owner was initially identified as a Russian national based in Cyprus, but he was not the beneficial owner.
A beneficial owner can always be disguised using several brass plate companies due to the obscure system of open registries. This carries economic benefits for both the registry states and shipowners.
In addition to exploiting lax regulations in registries whose flags are on the Paris as well as other MoU’s blacklists, many vessels, including ones that can easily be labeled as substandard ships, are attracted to regions that lack strong Port State Control (PSC) systems, according to Bockmann.
The PSC is a local maritime authority vested with the inspection of foreign ships in national ports to verify that the condition of the ship and its operation comply with the requirements of international regulations. Although the flag states are considered the main responsible parties for ships’ standards, the PSC system offers what the International Maritime Organization (IMO) calls a “safety net” to catch substandard ships.
However, it is not as simple as it seems.
Port State Control and “Catching” Substandard Ships
In an article I published a few weeks after the tragic Beirut explosion, which killed more than 200 and wounded over 6,000 people, I noted that the Rhosus had called at the port of Sidon in southern Lebanon a few months before it returned to Beirut with highly explosive cargo. Its voyage to Sidon was for an unrelated business, but it was an essential journey to examine because it revealed how a substandard ship like the Rhosus was allowed to enter and leave the port of Sidon where a PSC inspection report showed that it had severe detainable deficiencies.
Ships found with detainable deficiencies, as per the IMO, may not be arrested even if the PSC officer wanted to act on clear grounds. The detention will depend on a particular state’s capacity to detain and keep a vessel, and possibly withstand lawsuits, Professor Laleh Khalili, author of Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula, told me back in 2020.
Additionally, corruption is found in the PSC system where gifts may be offered or bribes solicited to turn a blind eye to a ship’s deficiencies, according to two sources in the shipping industry whose names shall remain anonymous.
Complicating things further is the fact that many ships sailing with severe deficiencies are classed by high-risk organizations that are not members of the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS), and which do not meet the definition of Classification Societies. Robin des Bois (Robin Hood), a French environmental NGO that tracks substandard ships, calls these organizations “ghost classification societies,” some of which are based or represented in European countries.
The purpose of a Class Society is to provide classification and statutory services and assistance to the maritime industry and regulatory bodies on issues related to maritime safety and pollution prevention.
In Lebanon, I have come across substandard ships, mostly livestock carriers and general cargo ships, that are issued with statutory certificates by organizations that have medium to low performance levels, according to the Paris MoU.
Lebanon’s Compliance with Maritime Conventions
Lebanon has been a member of the IMO since 1966 and a member of the Mediterranean Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control (Med MoU) since the late 1990s. It is also a signatory to international conventions, including the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). The key objective of the SOLAS Convention is to specify minimum safety standards for the construction, equipment, and operation of ships.
There are two “fundamental” regulations governing all activities in shipping, ports, ships, and port services in Lebanon: the Merchant Marine Code of 1947 and the Lebanese Ports and Harbors Regulations of 1966. However, according to a technical adviser at the Ministry of Public Works & Transport, these need to be “changed, amended, and updated.”
The department of the Maritime Administration within the Ministry is supposed to comply with IMO Port State Control regulations to ensure that Lebanon complies with international conventions, including SOLAS and MARPOL (the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships). It is also tasked with guaranteeing that Lebanese waters and ports are in compliance with international safety and security of shipping standards, as well as preventing marine pollution caused by ships according to an assessment report published by USAID in 2021.
However, some of the international maritime conventions to which Lebanon is a party need to be codified into law to have any serious or meaningful impact.
Based on the observations in the above-mentioned report as well as sources in the shipping industry, ports in Lebanon are not fully compliant with international conventions and treaties. For instance, the PSC as per SOLAS and MARPOL is not seriously enforced at the port of Beirut. In addition, several ship owners and managers flout regulations, as I show in the cases below.
Analysis of Ships’ Deficiencies in Lebanese Waters
For this report, I have reviewed over 30 ships, both foreign- and Lebanon-flagged, which have called at Lebanese ports. I compiled a list of the ones with high-risk profiles and share seven of them below, focusing specifically on deficiencies, flags, age, and any controversies.
I have relied on MarineTraffic, a global maritime analytics provider, for data of general cargo ships, and livestock carriers entering the country’s three ports: Beirut, Sidon, and Tripoli. In addition, I have reviewed inspection reports that have revealed serious deficiencies on several vessels related to the International Safety Management (ISM) Code, safety of navigation, structural conditions, pollution prevention, living and working conditions, and other categories. Some ships, mostly livestock carriers, are over 50 years old, dilapidated due to poor maintenance, sailing under blacklisted flags, and linked to cases involving animal cruelty.
Leader M (IMO 7526699): Currently a Togo-flagged general cargo ship. It was built in 1977 (45 years old). Togo is on the blacklist of the Paris MoU.
The Leader M’s registered owner and manager is a company called “Liliana shipping Co Ltd” with an address in Lebanon, according to the Equasis online database. It is classed by the International Naval Surveys Bureau (non-IACS).
In April 2018, the Leader M (formerly known as the Sunshine) was detained in the port of Kalymnos, Greece, for seven days with 14 deficiencies. Given that this was the ship’s third detention in the Paris MoU region within the prior 36 months, it was denied access to the area for 3 months in line with the provisions of the Paris MoU.
According to Robin des Bois (Robin Hood), a French environmental NGO that regularly publishes a bulletin on ship demolition (Shipbreaking), the Leader M is among over 100 substandard ships that “must be removed from the worldwide ocean and demolished without delay and with care.”
When the Leader M called on Sidon in April 2022, its emergency lighting batteries and switches were inoperative, and its lifeboats were not properly marked. It also had a defect related to pollution prevention, machinery defects, hull corrosion, hull damage impairing seaworthiness, in addition to deficiencies concerning working and living conditions.
Karim Allah (IMO 6519144): Built in 1965 (57 years old) and sailing under the Lebanese flag. This is among the Lebanese ships, mostly livestock carriers, that are over 50 years old. According to the Safety4Sea website, the “average lifespan of a ship is 25-30 years.” The Karim Allah used to be a Ro-Ro ship (for wheeled cargo) and was converted in 2001 at the age of 36, based on a report by Robin des Bois and the Animal Welfare Foundation e.V., a German NGO.
The ship’s manager, Talia Shipping Line Co Sarl, and the registered owner, Khalifeh Livestock Trd Co Sarl, have addresses in Lebanon, data from Equasis shows. As of 2021, and according to the above-mentioned report, the Karim Allah was classed by the Maritime Lloyd Georgia (non-IACS).
In December 2020, the Karim Allah was supposed to transport over 800 calves from Spain to Turkey, according to various reports. However, due to mismanagement on the part of the operator and a lack of coordination between the two countries, the animals on board were left in deplorable conditions as they could not be unloaded at their destination.
Among the reasons why the Turkish authorities rejected the cargo was reportedly the lack of a certificate confirming that the animals did not originate from a region affected by bluetongue disease. The ship, which left Spain in December 2020, kept sailing trying to find a new destination, despite encountering rejections, to unload the animals who were in need for food and rest. Fifteen animals reportedly died on board. Finally, the Karim Allah returned to Spain.
In an article published by the Guardian, the manager of the ship blamed the Spanish authorities, claiming they failed to answer his calls for assistance.
By March 2021, it was decided, under an order from Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing and Food, to kill the animals who suffered tremendously for around two months on a “hellish” journey that caused outrage among several NGOs.
In addition to the errors committed by the relevant authorities, the ageing Karim Allah was not suitable for transporting animals. One report quotes official veterinarians as saying that the “metallic structures for the separation of the pens and the ventilation tubes [were] deteriorated, with oxide, lack of paint and loss of material.”
Around the same time, another livestock carrier, the Elbeik (IMO 6718427), also registered in Lebanon, was involved in a similarly brutal situation. It was carrying over 1,700 animals loaded in Spain. According to reports, over 100 calves died on the ship. The remaining animals that were cramped in unsanitary pens, “with some in a state of stupor, being unable to open their eyes”, were all slaughtered in the end when they returned to Spain.
The Elbeik was a Togo-flagged livestock ship with the Lebanon-based Rana Maritime Services as its manager and Ibrahim Maritime Ltd as the registered owner, according to Equasis. It was classed by the International Naval Surveys Bureau, and before that the Maritime Lloyd Georgia, according to the report by Robin des Bois and Animal Welfare Foundation. In August 2021, a fire broke out on the vessel while it was empty and waiting to load a new cargo in Spain. It has been declared a total loss since then.
Despite being old and controversial ships, livestock carriers such as the Karim Allah and the Elbeik (when it was still in commission) have approvals from EU countries to transport animals.
The Karim Allah is approved by France until January 2023, according to a list of EU-approved vessels for livestock transport which was shared with me. As of July 11, 2022, the livestock carrier was sailing from Spain bound to Beirut.
“Most of these converted vessels are unfit to transport animals due to their technical deficiencies and [poor] designs,” which ignore the welfare of animals, Iris Baumgärtner, from the Animal Welfare Foundation, told me.
When I asked Baumgärtner why some EU countries allow these dilapidated livestock carriers to transport animals, mostly to Middle Eastern countries, she noted legislation flaws. “The problem is Regulation (EC) 1/2005….EU Member States act very differently in enforcing the regulation.”
Regulation (EC) No 1/2005 on the protection of animals during transport and related operations “regulates the transport of live vertebrate animals between European Union (EU) Member States and provides for checks on animals entering or leaving the EU”.
In addition to legislative issues, Baumgärtner highlighted the lack of collaboration between veterinarians and Port State Control (PSC) officers when inspecting livestock carriers in some European ports.
In Lebanon, probably to the surprise of many, there is a law concerning animal protection and welfare (Animal Protection & Welfare Law 47/2017). However, the enforcement of this law in general is poor.
“The Animal Protection and Welfare Law regulates the transport of animals by land, sea, and air,” Jason Mier, the director of Animals Lebanon, a Lebanese NGO which drafted law 47/2017, told me.
“This law can only bring about the necessary animal welfare improvements if it is backed by strict enforcement,” he added.
Anakin (IMO 7422544): Built in 1976 (46 years old), it is a livestock carrier sailing under the flag of Togo and approved by Spain for the transport of animals until June 2024, according to a list of EU-approved vessels for livestock transport which was shared with me.
A Lebanon-based company, known as GMZ Ship Management Co Sa, is both the ship manager (as of December 2021) and the ISM manager(as of January 2022). In June 2021, the Anakin was inspected at the port of Batumi in Georgia and found with 19 deficiencies. The ship underwent more detailed inspection at the same port in September of that year, according to data from Equasis, and was found with 14 deficiencies. The ship was not arrested. It was later in Lebanon and according to a PSC report, dated September 20, 2021, the ship had eight deficiencies.
As of July 12, Anakin was seen at Tarragona anchorage, Spain, coming from Beirut.
Some vessels I have come across during my research, and which have GMZ ship Management as the ISM manager, carry several deficiencies including ones impacting the seaworthiness of the vessel. These include, for example, the Sea Bird, (IMO 8202941), which sank in the sea of Crete last year. The ship reportedly had 16 Syrian crew onboard and they were all rescued. The PSC records of the Sea Bird show that it suffered from a series of deficiencies between 2020 and 2021 related to a lack of training on abandon ship drills, problems with the main engine, ISM-related deficiencies, poor maintenance of lifeboats, and deficiencies related to the operation of Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS).On top of that, the conditions of employment onboard the Sea Bird were poor.
Furthermore, in August 2021, a general cargo ship with GMZ Ship Management as the commercial manager, was intercepted by Spanish joint forces of police and customs on suspicion of narcotics trafficking. According to different reports, the vessel was reportedly carrying around 20 tons of hashish. Windward, a maritime AI company, which played a role in tracking the ship, notes in a blog that GMZ shipping has a “history of safety issues and a fleet of 17 high-risk vessels.”
Abdullah (IMO 7819876): Built in 1980 (42 years old), this livestock carrier sails under the flag of Tanzania, which is on the blacklist of the Paris MoU. The Abdullah is managed and owned by a company called Vienna Marine Co Sa, with an address in Belize, according to data from Equasis. The ISM manager is a company called Phoenicia Maritime LLC, with an address in Tartus, Syria. It is classed by the Guardian Bureau of Shipping (non-IACS), which according to a report by Robin des Bois and Animal Welfare Foundation is a “low performing” society. In general, the Abdullah is considered a high-risk ship.
In March 2022, the Abdullah was detained at the port of Rasa in Croatia with 18 deficiencies. These defects included a missing certificate for bunker oil pollution damage, ISM-related deficiencies, firefighting equipment, and other categories.
The following month, the Abdullah underwent more detailed inspection at the port of Beirut and was found with 13 deficiencies.
The last time I checked, the Abdullah was at the port of Tartus in Syria on June 26.
AlRaqeem (IMO 7803229): Built in 1979 (43 years old), the general cargo ship sails under the flag of Comoros, which is also on the Paris MoU blacklist. It was detained at the Turkish port of Botas for 18 days in April 2022 due to 76 deficiencies.
The ISM manager of the AlRaqeem is unclear, while its owner and manager are registered under the name of Mary Moon Navigation Co Ltd, with an address in Egypt, according to data from Equasis. The class is unclear.
Prior to the inspection in Turkey, the AlRaqeem’s last inspection had taken place in 2016 when it was detained in Egypt with 24 deficiencies.
The AlRaqeem (previously known as the Lord1 and the Mary Moon) was inspected by the Turkish Coast Guard in October 2020. An unconfirmed report claimed that it was carrying “undeclared and illegal cigarettes.”
This ship was seen off Lebanon’s Tripoli on May 17, 2022. As of July 14, the AlRaqeem was at Libya’s Marsa el-Brega where it has been idling since June.
Ghaydaa (IMO 7366037): Built in 1976 (46 years old), the general cargo ship used to sail under the flag of Tanzania before switching to the Lebanese flag. A Belize-based company called Hraishia Marine Co Sa is both the ship manager and registered owner. However, according to Baltic Shipping, the company has an address in Syria, and according to a Lebanese source in the shipping industry whom I have spoken to, the owner, Mr. B. Hraishia, is a Syrian national. This is one of several cases where a shipping company in charge of a vessel alleges to be Lebanese or a different nationality, but is Syrian in reality.
The Ghaydaa was classed by the Venezuelan Register of Shipping(non-IACS), which has a low performance level, according to the Paris MoU.
In 2020, the Ghaydaa (previously known as the Enas H), was separately inspected in Turkey and Russia, and found with 56 deficiencies in total. It was detained in Turkey for 3 days.
Ghaydaa was seen leaving Beirut in March 2022 signaling for Libya’s Marsa el-Brega, and since May it has been calling on Russian, Lebanese, Romanian, and Turkish ports.
Dragon (IMO 7303231): This is currently a Togo-flagged livestock carrier. The Dragon was built in 1973 (49 years old) as a general cargo ship, and was converted into a livestock carrier in 1982, based on a report published by Robin des Bois and Animal Welfare Foundation.
The Dragon is owned by a company known as Reina Shipping Ltd, registered in Liberia and currently in the “care of” Rana Maritime Services SA, which according to the Equasis online database has an address in Lebanon. The Dragon is classed by the International Naval Surveys Bureau (INSB).
In February 2022, the Dragon underwent inspection at the Poti port in Georgia. A PSC report shows that it had 18 deficiencies, but the ship was not detained. The livestock carrier had a hull damage impairing seaworthiness, four defects related to certificates and documentations, International Safety Management (ISM) Code, and MARPOL-related deficiencies. Despite the severe deficiencies, the ship sailed on.
The Dragon was in Lebanon the following month, where an inspection report showed that it had 8 deficiencies. This was the last inspection report I have seen for this ship. However, as the above-mentioned report by the French and German NGOs notes, the absence of inspections does not mean the ship is free of deficiencies, and for this reason it is important to examine previous reports to form a good understanding of the ship’s general conditions.
The last time I checked on the Dragon, the ship was in Lebanon’s Port of Tripoli on July 10, 2022, based on shipping data from MarineTraffic.
There are always many corners in the maritime industry where seafarers are abused and abandoned, live animals are subjected to cruel treatment, the maritime environment polluted by ships disregarding international conventions, and shipowners enjoying impunity. The cases I have shared here are only a handful of many others.
What Can Be Done
Following the devastating Beirut blast, several articles heavily criticized the open registry system and its various loopholes as well as the corrupt political clique in Lebanon. It has been almost two years since then, and in the maritime industry it is business as usual.
“Since the Lebanon explosion nothing has changed,” Bockmann told me. “Those regulatory gaps are exploited in various ways,” she added, noting that regulatory gaps within maritime conventions and rules are used to circumvent restrictions on US-sanctioned trades for instance.
In Lebanon, the ordeal many Lebanese families have had to endure is immeasurable. The investigation into the port explosion continues to drag on due to obstruction from various political parties. Victims of the port blast are even resorting to other countries for the long-delayed justice.
On the issue of ship security and safety, calling on the Lebanese state to clamp down on high-risk ships would be deemed far-fetched. However, the relevant authorities can start taking measures once at a time, starting for instance with tightening inspection of ships that are classed with non-IACS societies. This of course will require a competent and non-corrupt administration.
Furthermore, international organizations currently helping Lebanon enhance its maritime governance may need to pay a special attention to the issue of ship security and safety and how this can be improved.
Lebanese NGOs focusing on the protection and welfare of animals may play a role to ensure that there are regulations for the care, handling, and safe carriage of livestock at Lebanese ports, given that some Lebanon-registered vessels have been involved in the mistreatment of animals transported from Europe. The Animal Protection & Welfare Law should be implemented.
Finally, some of the European countries that have been urging Lebanon to undergo reforms following the Beirut blast may need to review their own standards and regulations based on which they are approving vessels that are unfit to transport animals.
The Paris Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control is the official agreement between 27 participating Maritime Authorities implementing a harmonized system of Port State Control: https://www.parismou.org/inspections-risk/library-faq/memorandum#:~:text=The%20Paris%20Memorandum%20of%20Understanding,system%20of%20Port%20State%20Control .
According to the IMO, a detention implies “intervention action taken by the port Sate when the condition of the ship or its crew does not correspond substantially with the relevant conventions to ensure that the ship will not sail until it can proceed to sea without presenting a danger to the ship or persons on board, or without presenting an unreasonable threat of harm to the marine environment, whether or not such action will affect the normal schedule of the departure of the ship.” Clear grounds are defined as “evidence that the ship, its equipment, or its crew do not correspond substantially with the requirements of the relevant conventions or that the master or crew members are not familiar with essential shipboard procedures relating to the safety of ships or the prevention of pollution.”
The employee was speaking during a webinar in July 2021 on Safety and Security of Shipping, which was held by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD-Lebanon) under the EU-funded “Strengthening Capability for Integrated Border Management in Lebanon (EU IBM Lebanon) project.”
The INSB says that it is “recognized as a Classification Society by an extensive number of Governments (Flag States). Authorization has been delegated for the performance of statutory functions, such as ship surveys, approvals and certification services by” Flag States including Togo, Tanzania, Union of Comoros, Republic of Moldova, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Syria, Libya, Sudan, and Lebanon: https://insb.gr/Statutory.Authorisations .
The ISM Code aims to provide an international standard for the safe management and operation of ships and for pollution prevention, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
The GMDSS is essential for sending and receiving distress alerts and maritime safety information.
Currently known as the VERITAS REGISTER OF SHIPPING LTD (VRS): https://www.togoregistrar.com/approved-class-and-ro
Victims of Beirut port blast file complaint in U.S. court, by Maya Gebeily, Reuters, July 14, 2022: https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/victims-beirut-port-blast-file-complaint-us-court-2022-07-14/ .