- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2003

Joseph J. Cox, president of the Washington-based Chamber of Shipping of America, was chief negotiator for employers at the annual conference of the In ternational Labor Organization in Geneva last week, which adopted a global convention to require commercial seafarers to carry new biometric identity cards, and represented 45 national shipping associations. Mr. Cox was interviewed for The Washington Times on Wednesday by special correspondent John Zaracostas.

Question: What does the adoption of a secure, biometric identification card mean for the shipping industry? Is this the beginning of something that will become the norm in the future?

Answer: Yes, I think it’s not just a start for the seafaring community, but also a start for the identification of all personnel that are moving about, and we’ve got a solid basis to issuing seafarers IDs, but remember that U.S. law requires all transportation workers to have a transportation worker’s ID card.

Q: The new convention is the brainchild of the Bush administration and was inspired by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York and Washington. It was negotiated in record time for an international convention —15 months. Do you have any views on this?

A: Let me correct one point that might be important for everyone. While the Bush administration, through the Coast Guard request to the IMO (International Maritime Organization), resulted in [the ILOs] eventual development of this instrument, the U.S. Congress passed a Marine Transportation Security Act.

In that act, they required the United States to go to an international organization and develop an international standard for seafarers’ identification — and if, within two years, that could not be done, then the Congress instructed the administration to do it unilaterally.

So it’s more than the administration making the request. You now have Congress, a separate branch of government altogether, also saying the same thing — and they’re the ones who ratify.

Q: Still, it’s U.S. global leadership, and as some American delegates mentioned here, they’re looking forward to the United States to lead in ratification.

A: Yes, and the situation as I see it … now the real work is going to take place. And it’s going to have to be an acceptance by the security professionals, as they look at a document and say: “How is this going to be used? Does this truly fulfill the requirements from a security standpoint?”

And that is what’s starting to take place in the U.S., as we speak. The U.S. has a draft copy of this pact. They’re looking at it.

I believe the security people are going to be the key persons. And if they think that this is not providing a secure ID, then I think they will have to say what is missing. And the question that would be begging from that would be: “Why wasn’t that placed onto the table while we were debating the instrument?”

Q: This new convention provides for a biometric template in the form of a fingerprint that will be encoded and electronically read; for a digital or digitized photo; a personalized number of the individual seafarer’s ID, and secure databases that will be monitored, verified and also independently audited. Sounds like very detailed work here. Do you think that might satisfy the security concerns?

A: I think there have been a lot of issues. Changes made to the instrument have taken up security concerns. And, yes, I’m satisfied that we have a robust document.

And, in fact, I read the fingerprint requirement as going a little bit deeper than just the surface of a fingerprint. Because that fingerprint doesn’t change. That’s the key to remember.

And also there’s a little bit of confusion, but you have to read the document carefully: The digital photograph on the document has to say “digital” or “original.” So you can have an original photograph on the document, but that original photograph is going to be scanned and placed into an electronic database. So you’re going to have a fingerprint, plus you’re going to have a scanned digital photograph in that database.

What I thought was that while we’re doing this from a security standpoint, what we may discover is that we’re now controlling people who may have come into the industry and maybe aren’t truly qualified as seafarers. They’re not terrorists, but they’re working. They wanted a job. And it’s going to make it more difficult for fraud in the document section.

So someone who is not a seafarer, it’s going to be very difficult for him or her to work in this industry. So I think you also see a safety benefit to this instrument, not just a security ones.

Q: The databases will be accessible 24 hours a day through key points in each country. Will this also make your job easier, as employers, in vetting staff?

A: We will not have access to those databases. Those are only for verification of seafarers’ ID. We specifically said in the debate of the last few weeks [that] we do not want to have access.

If we have a question about a seafarer’s credentials, we will ask the issuing state, and then they can confirm for us. But we do not want to have access to that data. And, indeed, we do not think that anybody but government employees should have access.

Q: In hiring staff, this ID document will be the benchmark. Is it likely to enhance the mobility of seafarers who need to change ships, or transit through a lot of ports and airports for home leave or shore leave? Will this make their mobility easier, and is this going to remove some paperwork from the employer’s point of view?

A: I’m not sure what you’re getting at about the paperwork, but we came here with the idea we want to facilitate seafarer movements.

One of the aspects that are sort of preventing seafarers from moving is the visa issue. We knew that visa was going to be a problem, because there are those who came to this conference saying that if you issued this card, it should be a visa. Well, there’s a basic problem with that from a government standpoint. That’s allowing people in and out.

If you have a passport, that’s a national document issued by the other government. Now you’re saying: “We want you to accept a seafarers document, which would also be issued by the other government, and we want you to treat it as a visa.”

Well, a visa is a document issued by the government that’s allowing the person in. So there’s a basic problem in saying that this document is a visa. Yet, that language survived in the instrument. We stayed out of it, as the shipowners, [because] the directive on crews was an emotive issue for seafarers, and they had to work it out with the government.

I’m afraid that’s going to provide the stumbling block in terms of the view of the totality of the instrument. But I also know that there are other words that could be relied upon. There’s specific reference to national security.

Q: That’s right, a government can refuse entry for public health or national security, etc. But some countries, like the United States and Australia, require a visa for entry, even if you’re a seafarer, and the text talks of ‘substantial equivalence’ in laws.

A: What we would like to see is — without violating any nation’s desires to issue, or not issue, what they call a visa, we’re not necessarily interested in something with a name on it — we’re interested in getting the seafarer in and out. And so, for example, there are the visa-waiver countries that are going to participate in a visa-waiver program.

This document can serve as that type of agreement between any two nations. So the United States, for example, could go to the Philippines and say: “Let’s work out a bilateral visa process so that the seafarer could move in and out.” No matter what it’s called, we could do it more quickly than we can do it now.

You also asked the question earlier about paperwork. I think it may be less. We’re going to want to make sure the guy [that] shows up at the vessel to take the job has all the right pieces of paper and is qualified person to be hired. …

Q: Some of your colleagues have mentioned that this is a benchmark convention, a breakthrough, and that in the 21st century, biometrics will be standard and, thus, the convention could provide a blueprint for other identification requirements.

A: Well, I can only speak to my experience with the U.S. on this, and certainly, this transportation worker’s ID card that’s going to be issued is a card that will be required of every transportation worker in the United States. That means truck drivers, bus drivers, railroad personnel, port people like stevedores and longshoremen. You’re talking about a large number of people.

Certainly, anybody driving a truck from Mexico into the United States — if that happens to be a Mexican driver — he’s going to have to hold a transport worker’s ID card. So I think the answer to your question is “yes,” it’s already gone beyond that in the United States.

Q: So what you’re saying is that if, say, the global trucking community wants an ID card for truckers crossing borders in Europe, Asia, or elsewhere, this seafarers’ ID is a good blueprint?

A: I think it is, in the sense … [that] you have a card with a biometric which is specifically yours, and it’s encoded in the card so that the one you give is the one that can be measured against the card. You put your thumb on a reader and a card is in the reader, and they have to match. This instrument is the first that has that principle embodied.

Now, whether that biometic is a fingerprint forever and ever, or it’s going to be some kind of other type of biometric, we don’t know. But, yes, this is the initial one.

Q: This is also meant to be a technology-neutral agreement, in the sense that you look forward to interoperability of various technologies based on an internationally agreed standard. How far away is the development of such an international standard, and will it be possible to have it in place before the first few ratifications?

A: It’s been a question because this was an issue put in by the seafarers as part of the agreement that the governments and seafarers are trying to work out among themselves.

But it could be a stumbling block to ratification, because it is a blank line in the annex in the document. So a government could say: “Why ratify an instrument when we don’t have an international standard yet?”

But I can assure you the fingerprint standard we have in the United States that’s followed is the one that the FBI uses. Fingerprints have been around a long time, and I’m pretty sure the various law-enforcement agencies have the standard database.

I’m not sure if it’s an insurmountable issue, the [international] standardization of the fingerprint, but it could be used as a rationale for people saying “we’re going to wait before we implement.”

Q: As we heard many times from you and other delegates, shipping moves over 90 percent of world trade, and the 1.2 million seafarers are sensitive that they are doing this incredible work moving so much cargo across borders, and some of them feel that they have been singled out as a profession. Do you think their concerns about recent incidents are justified?

A: Frankly, I don’t think that they have been subjected to a higher level of security. But once again, I can only speak [about] the United States. But certainly the U.S. is conducting a more detailed review of people coming into the U.S.

The situation from the seafarers’ standpoint is, they don’t have the ease of getting a visa [that] a tourist coming to the U.S. does.

A tourist coming to the U.S. can afford to have a period of time where they apply for a visa. If you’re going to visit in June, and it’s going to take a month to get a visa, then you go to the consulate in February. But the seafarer doesn’t have that luxury.

So the impact on the seafarer has been greater because of that timing issue. But I don’t think the seafarer has been treated any different than a person coming or going as a tourist.

Q: Because of the shorter turnaround time of ships and shorter stops in ports, some seafarers complain they’re spending weeks at sea, and if they can’t have shore leave, then their conditions become unbearable and seriously infringe on their basic rights.

A: I was a seaman for a period of time, and crossing the Pacific is a long passage when you’re going through the Panama Canal and end up on the East Coast of the U.S. And to say I would get to a port and not be allowed to go ashore — it actually happened in my travels, and I can assure you being on a ship for three or four months without stepping on land does have an effect on you.

That’s why shore leave is important.

Q: So this convention will hopefully facilitate shore leave for seafarers?

A: Correct. In my previous response I talked about guys who were tourists and that. I’m going to be totally selfish about my industry and say … [I’d like to have seafarers classified as] a distinct body. They don’t want to be discriminated against. Well, I want to positively discriminate [in favor of] seafarers.

So [with an internationally accepted biometric ID] when any border patrol looks at a seafarer, they actually have a more robust record of that person than they have of a casual visitor, and then they can treat us in a separate category. …

Q: Poorer, developing countries have said they will require technical assistance. Do you think the ILO and individual governments can help through bilateral assistance?

A: Absolutely. The U.S. can help.

And, by the way, I think the cost of this and the unknowns of the technology have been a bit overblown. Because the technology on fingerprinting has been around for a long time.

But I think it’s not only bilaterals between developed nations, but perhaps the large flag-[shipping] states can also be involved. You have to appreciate shipowners know who pays for things in this industry. We’re very well versed in governments requiring us. But certainly large flag states would certainly have an interest in making sure the technology is also available. Shipowners don’t want their ships detained and prevented from movement. …

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