The devastating Beirut blast has laid bare shortcomings in the system of international maritime regulation / © AFP/File
An old, unseaworthy freighter from Georgia -- or was it Bulgaria or Moldova? -- packed with hazardous material explodes after apparently being abandoned for years by its owner in Beirut's port.
Almost 200 were killed and thousands injured in the August 4 blast, which serves as a reminder of how lawless the world's oceans can be, where traffickers of just about anything can ply their trade with seeming impunity.
The Rhosus cargo ship had docked there on November 20, 2013, and has been left stranded ever since after the Russian businessman believed to be its owner abandoned it.
For Helen Sampson, director of the Seafarers International Research Centre at the University of Cardiff, the tragedy throws the spotlight on the shortcomings of the current system for overseeing trade on the world's oceans.
"Had the Rhosus been properly regulated, she would not have been able to sail to Beirut in unseaworthy condition and would not have been detained," she told AFP.
"We can speculate that she would not have been abandoned and her cargo would not have been discharged.
"In any case, the example serves as a stark reminder of the loopholes which are present in the current system of maritime regulation."
- Moldovan flag -
The Rhosus was a dilapidated 30-year-old vessel from Georgia that sailed under a Moldovan flag and had a mailing address in Bulgaria.
Landlocked Moldova is one of 17 countries blacklisted by the Paris Memorandum of Understanding on Port Control (Paris MoU), an organisation of 27 states, mostly European, which classifies the flags according to safety, environmental and social criteria.
Others include Togo, Mongolia and Ukraine.
Nearly 200 people died, thousands more injured and large swathes of Beirut razed to the ground when a gigantic stockpile of ammonium nitrate exploded in the city's port on August 4 / © AFP/File
Sampson estimates that currently more than 70 percent of tonnage on the world's oceans is being carried by "free registered" ships sailing under "flags of convenience" -- or flags that are not of their country of origin.
While not all of these flags are necessarily irresponsible, some shipowners find the relatively low regulatory hurdles attractive.
The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) has identified 35 flags as risky, including the biggest and best-known flag of convenience Panama, which had 9,367 ships at the end of 2019, nearly twice as many as China, according to Lloyd's List Maritime Intelligence.
- Mysterious shipowner -
But it is not only a question of the Rhosus's flag.
According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an investigative journalism outfit, its real owner was a Cypriot shipping magnate who hid behind a smokescreen of different companies.
OCCRP said the tycoon leased the rickety vessel via a Panama-registered firm to a Russian businessman, who eventually declared bankruptcy and abandoned the vessel, together with its crew and hazardous cargo.
Furthermore, the Rhosus's certificate of seaworthiness had been issued by another company owned by the Cypriot shipping magnate, OCCRP said.
The cargo itself was destined for a Mozambican firm called Fabrica de Explosivos which, also according to OCCRP, was part of a network of companies with links to Mozambique's ruling class and under investigation for arms trafficking and the supply of explosives to terrorists.
- 'The net is closing in' -
Nevertheless, not everyone in the industry should be tarred with the same brush, says Jean-Marc Lacave, head of the French shipowners' federation, Armateurs de France.
Shipping accounts for 90 percent of the international movement of freight / © AFP
"There will always be black sheep," he said, but the regulatory differences between countries are vanishing "and we are witnessing an upward convergence" of standards, said the former director of the French port of Le Havre.
Nelly Grassin, a security expert at Armateurs de France, said "the net is closing in" with checks on the ports becoming increasingly frequent and efficient.
Some observers suggest the Rhosus and its explosive shipment might be an exception in an industry that accounts for 90 percent of international trade in goods.
But in her book "The Hidden Face of the Economy, Neoliberalism and Criminality", Clotilde Champeyrache argues that the "massification" of trade creates an "invisibility" that criminal organisations can use to their advantage.
She said lowering of standards caused by competition between states that supply flags of convenience makes it possible "to beat police and law enforcement operations by blurring the traceability of goods, capital and people".