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Ship-Breakers Missed by UN's Budget for Travel and Consultants in Bangladesh, Largest UNIFIL Troop Donor

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, August 18 -- Along the beaches of southern Bangladesh, decaying and asbestos-filled ships no longer useful to the West are disassembled for scrap metal by Bangladeshi workers with little to no safety equipment, sometimes without even shoes.

Ship-breaking chaos

            To address or obscure this potentially photogenic flashpoint of globalization, the UN Development Programme three years ago committed to fund a project ostensibly improving the treatment of ship-breaking workers in Bangladesh. There have been allegations, however, of waste and over-paid consultants, about which Inner City Press has asked UNDP, see below.

   The UN's relations with Bangladesh are hardly one-way. Earlier this week, Bangladesh offers 2000 of its soldiers, two mechanized divisions, to the UN Lebanon mission called UNIFIL. Bangladesh's is the largest commitment to date.

            To get response from UNDP, Inner City Press forwarded to Dhaka this quote from ship-breaker Zafar Alam, about UNDP's use of funds: "We wanted them to spend the money on training, development of sanitation, building a hospital, buying ambulances and installation of tube-wells but they never bothered to listen to us. Instead, they spent more than Tk 4 crore on consultancy, foreign trips, well-furnished offices, vehicles and conferences in expensive hotels."

            In a two-page response sent to Inner City Press, UNDP's Najmus Sahar sadiq disclosed the following budget:

"The Safe and Environment Friendly Ship Recycling Project has a total budget of Taka 8 crore. This amount includes also salaries of project staff for the period of 2003-2007. Out of this budget, the following expenditures have been made (all amounts are in Bangladesh Taka):

Consultancy: 8 lakh taka;

Study tour: 18 lakh; a total of 11 persons went on the study tour, two representatives from BSBA (yard owners) and two worker representatives nominated through BSBA.

Office: 16 lakh for renovation; office space has been provided by the Government.

Vehicles: 30 lakh; one car and one motor cycle.

Training: so far 6 lakh, totally planned around 30 lakh

Baseline Survey: 12 lakh."

            As simply one example, this UNDP project has spent five times less on training, one of the stated substantive goals, than on vehicles, and only aspires to equal with training its vehicle spending.  These same issues surfaced in Inner City Press' inquiry earlier this year into UNDP's controversy-plagued and still-suspended disarmament programs in Eastern Uganda's Karamoja region. UNDP-Bangladesh's non-budgetary response included that it is

"not in the projectís mandate to provide facilities such as sanitation and tube wells as mentioned by Zafar Alam... The infrastructural changes involve a far higher investment for which the 3-year budget provided for the project is far from capable of covering. A total of 13 staff is involved in setting up a method of reaching out to 20,000 to 30,000 often illiterate workers. The difficulty of developing a method by which safer working habits can be taught to these persons is never to be taken lightly. To be able to reach out to them it was essential to 67find out how the ship yard workers are actually carrying out their respective jobs. For this a thorough baseline survey was held...developing a one-day training programme for all yard-nominated workers where all aspects of unsafe and occupational health matters can be addressed. The sessions are now being held, and to date (1st August) we have been able to provide training to close to 900 persons...Another aspect with which this project will deal is to raise awareness regarding international concern over the way in which ships are demolished here in Bangladesh, as well as inform the important stakeholders about the international guidelines that have been developed by ILO, IMO and Basel Convention (UNEP)."

            A recent visit to the UNEP / Basel convention web site find a notice that "The Treaty Section of the United Nations web site is now a pay site, to subscribe, please e-mail your request to treaty [at] un.org." One wonders how many ship-breaking workers in Bangladesh can or would pay to subscribe to get information about the Basel Conventional (UNEP).  At another UN level, Friday at the Security Council stakeout a UN guard from Pakistan, on the topic of ship-breaking, said that those who make the money should devote more of it to worker safety.

            Ship-breaking, considered too dangerous and polluting to be performed in Europe or the United States, and now even in South Korea and Taiwan where the industry first moved, is concentrated in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Lloyd's List of August 14, 2006, reported for example that

"Bangladeshi recyclers walked away with the two best deals of the week, picking up two tankers, Ocean Tankers' 88,396 dwt, 1979 Ocean Star and the Prisco-controlled, 17,725 dwt, 1977 Kamensk-Uralskiy. Chittagong operators revealed they were willing to dig deep when the tonnage was exactly what they desired and forked out $385 per ldt for the 18,592 ldt of the Ocean Star and $382 per ldt for the 7,445 ldt of the Prisco vessel. These were offers which could not be matched by their competitors. Ocean Star happened to be the fifth in a series of sister vessels sold to Bangladesh and GMS reported that the swift decision-taking ability of that country's scrappers allowed the deal to be concluded in less than 24 hours. Unidentified buyers picked up the 53,439 dwt, 1973 Spain-built bulk carrier Peng Yang, whose 10.561 ldt were sold on 'as is China region' basis for $315per ldt."

     The flow of junk ships is slated to increase, with the replacement by 2010 of one layer hull oil tankers. Recent reporting about the scrapping of the old SS France ocean liner shows the economics of ship-breaking. The SS France, since renamed SS Norway and then at last the Blue Lady, is worth some $12 million as scrap, which is less than it would cost to remove the asbestos if one followed European environmental laws.  So tow it to Alang beach in India's Gujurat, and let the ship-breaking begin. Then to fend off controversy, as a band aid on a cancer, fund a few consultant in brand new cars.

            A more fundamental approach may be needed.  For now, this analysis is provided, from a Georgetown law review:

"The towing of old rusted vessels contaminated with hazardous wastes across the Atlantic Ocean may fall within one of the prohibited acts set out in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea...Article 19 states that a 'passage of a foreign ship shall be considered to be prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State if in the territorial sea it engages in . . . any act of willful and serious pollution contrary to [the] Convention.' United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, opened for signature Dec. 10, 1982, art. 19, 1833 U.N.T.S. 3 (entered into force Nov. 16, 1994)."

While the UN's Bangladesh account may not balance, the UN's Convention on the Law of the Sea may be of use.

Disclosure: Georgetown Law School's Institute for Public Representation has provided legal help to Inner City Press, most recently in overturning Delaware's citizen-only Freedom of Information Act, 3d Circuit Court of Appeals decision here, also in NY Times of August 17, 2006, Page C7, and here.

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