Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 January 2006
Issue No. 778
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Caught in the middle

The controversy over French warship Clemenceau's crossing the Suez Canal raged last week, reports Magda El-Ghitany

Click to view caption
The fate of decommissioned ships remains unclear

Environmental and human rights organisations were disappointed when Egypt announced, on 15 January, that it would permit Clemenceau, a French ship, to cross the Suez Canal on its way to India to be dismantled. Their chagrin was compounded by concern that Egypt's green light for Clemenceau would carry implicit approval for 55 similar carriers.

On Tuesday, parliament demanded to be consulted before the government gave Clemenceau its approval to cross the canal. Parliamentary Speaker Fathi Sorour said the government would pay a political price [in the form of intense parliamentary scrutiny] if the consultation did not occur.

According to activists from the international Greenpeace movement, Clemenceau contains 500 tonnes of asbestos and other toxic materials that will inflict deadly diseases on Indian workers involved in the dismantling process, in violation of the Basel convention that prohibits hazardous trade.

Suez Canal authorities had initially halted the ship's passage through the canal for three days. On Sunday, however, a canal official denied that Egypt had prevented the ship from crossing. Egypt had only "mandated that ships bearing scrap must fulfill agreed-upon conditions to safeguard the environment". In tandem, the Environment Ministry said that, "it would not prohibit Clemenceau from crossing the Suez Canal," after "receiving a report from the French Embassy in Cairo that indicated that France had already removed all the asbestos, except for 45 tonnes needed to stabilise the ship's balance during the trip." The ministry's statement also indicated that Egypt had "received the required certificates ensuring the carrier's safety," and that the French government had received a letter from Indian authorities confirming their agreement to receive Clemenceau and dismantle it.

The ministry's deputy director , Magdi Allam, told Al-Ahram Weekly that, "the Basel convention does not apply to warship carriers like Clemenceau, and thus the carrier's trip does not violate international law."

These reassurances, some observers said, seemed to directly contradict previous official statements that indicated that Clemenceau might not be allowed to cross the Suez Canal because "it was leaking toxic waste."

In point of fact, it looked more like a classic case of shifting responsibilities. Just as Allam was saying that "the Environment Ministry had fulfilled its role, and confirmed that the carrier was environmentally harmless, with the remaining technical procedures to be carried out by Suez Canal authorities," a canal official told Al-Ahram that "after finishing its checks, the canal will have to wait for the Environment Ministry's approval."

A French diplomatic source, meanwhile, told the Weekly that the ongoing procedures were just part of a normal "process... usually applied on all huge carriers; it does not indicate that Egypt will decline to allow Clemenceau to [use] the Suez Canal".

Further complicating matters, India has "yet to take a decision about whether or not to allow Clemenceau to enter Indian waters," said Anil Kumarai, the press attaché at India's Embassy in Cairo. Kumarai told the Weekly that India allows -- in principle -- dismantling operations to take place in its territories. With Clemenceau, however, he said there was "missing information on the carrier's environmental safety that India still needs France to provide." Kumarai noted that the decision on whether to receive Clemenceau or not will be taken by an independent Indian Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) tomorrow [20 January], depending on the information it will have received by then. Indian Web site Newkerala reported a 7 January SCMC statement indicating that "India will be [violating] the Basel convention on movement of hazardous wastes if it allows the ship near the country's exclusive economic zone." The committee took that stance after Techno-pure, the company hired by the French government to pursue the dismantling process, revealed that the carrier was carrying at least 500 tonnes of toxic material.

According to the French diplomat, France sees the probability of the Indian court rejecting Clemenceau as "hypothetical. All our efforts are now concentrated on convincing the Indian court of Clemenceau's safety, so it will rule in its favour."

Speaking to the Weekly on the same day the Environment Ministry released its report, Greenpeace spokesman Martin Besieux said, "we deeply regret that Egypt allowed Clemenceau to continue its progress to India". Besieux said Clemenceau "contains at least 500 tonnes... of toxic asbestos and Polychlorinated Bhenyl (PCB). At least 14,000 poor, unprotected workers who will pursue the carrier's dismantling will thus end up suffering from deadly asbestosis and lung cancer. This is a humanitarian disaster by all measures."

Environmental activist Emad Shata said an even bigger problem was that Egypt's decision would also carry implicit approval for another "55 similar carriers, each of which will either kill or cause deadly diseases to 14,000 workers."

France, noted Besieux, is "misinterpreting international law, and Egypt has been apparently misled, or subjected to French diplomatic pressures".

One commentator told the Weekly that the "Clemenceau issue, from beginning to end, is directly related to Egyptian- French talks on the Syrian issue; Egypt tried to convince France to take a more moderate stance on Syria. When it managed to do so, it decided to let Clemenceau in". A high- ranking diplomat, however, denied this sort of "conspiracy theory". The Clemenceau issue "is far from political," he said. "It is purely technical, and, in all cases, it has zero impact on strong Egyptian-French ties."

The French ship, an aircraft carrier that has been out of military service since 1997, has been mired in controversy since December 2005, when Greenpeace activists organised peaceful demonstrations in France and India against the idea of it being dismantled in India. Along with the Indian Trade Unions, Greenpeace urged France not to scrap the carrier, and remove the asbestos instead. On 5 January, two Greenpeace activists boarded Clemenceau while it was just 50 nautical miles away from Egypt's coast. Holding banners that read, "Asbestos carrier stay out of India," the activists halted the carrier's progress towards the Suez Canal. "We are asking Egypt to refuse permission to Clemenceau to enter the Suez Canal, and halt its progress towards Gujarat, [India]," the two activists said, citing Greece and Turkey's refusal to let the carrier enter their waters.

Besieux said the only way to scrap Clemenceau without violating international norms would be to decontaminate 90 per cent of its toxic materials; the remaining percentage of toxics would not constitute a hazard to the workers. According to the Greenpeace Web site, the decontamination process is highly expensive, and thus developed states prefer to carry it out in developing countries where it is highly "uncontrolled".

Veteran international law professor Ali El-Ghatit told the Weekly that there is a "clear manipulation of international law" in the Clemenceau case. The Basel Convention "did not exclude certain types of ships. Its provisions are thus applied on all sorts of ships, including warships." Since Clemenceau has been out of service for years now, it cannot -- in any case -- be considered a warship. For El-Ghatit, the most important violation of international law centred on the "fact that that Basel Convention, initiated in the 1980s with the formation of the UN General Assembly's World Charter of Nature and to which all UN member states are committed, whether they ratified it or not, entails that 'developed countries are... responsible for protecting poor countries from dumping developed states' toxic wastes in their developing territories'." The same convention, in addition to others, "grants Egypt the right to prevent any ship from entering the Suez Canal to protect the international environment, and not just Egypt's".

The problem, El-Ghatit said, is that "moral obligations states are obliged to pursue are now overcome by other political and economic dimensions."

If anything, the Clemenceau case has brought critical issues related to the hazards of the ship breaking industry to the forefront. According to Besieux, the ship-breaking industry "involves environmental justice as well as human rights issues." Although the industry provides thousands of employment opportunities, as well as huge financial benefits to certain industrial sectors, it costs thousands of innocent lives every year. The ship-breaking yards are also usually located in areas that suffer from extremely poor environmental conditions.

The Greenpeace Web site indicates that negotiations are currently taking place amongst various international and environmental organisations to reach a "new binding international instrument besides the Basel Convention regime, regulating the shipping industry and recycling activities for End of Life Ships."

Greenpeace does not consider the Clemenceau issue closed. Indeed, as the Weekly went to press, Besieux was on his way to India, where he was planning to meet representatives from the Indian Supreme Court. Besieux said he was planning to show the court "all the documents supporting Greenpeace arguments [about] Clemenceau," in an attempt to convince it to rule against the ship's coming to India. In any case, he said Greenpeace would continue to "struggle to prevent Clemenceau and its counterparts from reaching India," as part of its long-term efforts to protect poor peoples' lives.

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