The groups have expressed their concerns regarding the inadequacy of the requirements outlined in the Hong Kong Convention for ensuring ethical, safe, and environmentally friendly ship recycling practices. They argue that these requirements not only fail to meet the standards set by existing laws but also risk undermining ongoing efforts to reform the sector’s hazardous and polluting practices.
Several entities, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights, the Centre for International Environmental Law, and the European Parliament, have criticized the Hong Kong Convention for its weak standards and enforcement mechanisms. Additionally, a majority of the 191 countries party to the UNEP Basel Convention, which regulates the global trade of hazardous waste, including end-of-life ships, have found that the Hong Kong Convention does not provide an equivalent level of control and fails to prevent the dumping of toxic ships in developing countries.
Ingvild Jenssen, Executive Director and Founder of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, highlighted that the Hong Kong Convention endorses shipbreaking practices on tidal mudflats, disregarding labor rights and international rules for hazardous waste management. She argued that the convention serves the interests of shipping companies by enabling them to avoid the true costs of sustainable and ethical recycling while undercutting responsible ship recyclers. Jenssen emphasized that the convention undermines not only its own objectives but also the credibility of the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
Bangladesh recently granted approval for the implementation of the Hong Kong Convention, as the shipbreaking sector has been a significant contributor to the country’s economy and has supported the development of related industries and employment opportunities. However, the Bangladesh Environmental Law Association (BELA) cautioned that the convention may not achieve its primary objectives and called for changes to ensure sustainable ship recycling goals.
Rizwana Hasan, Director of BELA, stated that the entry into force of the flawed Hong Kong Convention should not be celebrated but rather used as an opportunity to revise the text. BELA advocates for environmental justice, labor rights, and circular economy objectives, urging the European Union and responsible ship owners to prevent the shipping sector from greenwashing current practices that would not be allowed in their home countries.
The Hong Kong Convention falls short in establishing robust environmental and social standards for the proper management of toxic substances in end-of-life ships, in comparison to the Basel Convention and the more recent EU Ship Recycling Regulation. Furthermore, the convention lacks requirements beyond compliance with national rules for hazardous waste management downstream. It supports beaching, a practice associated with pollution and health hazards for workers and local communities. The convention also fails to protect shipbreaking workers, who often face unsafe working conditions, inadequate protective equipment, and limited access to medical facilities.
The groups emphasized that beaching yards in India and Bangladesh claiming compliance with the Hong Kong Convention are supported by ship owners seeking inexpensive disposal options for their end-of-life vessels, where the costs of managing hazardous materials are not taken into account. Consequently, the burden of these costs falls on workers, local communities, and coastal environments, leading to toxic exposure, loss of life and livelihoods, and harm to biodiversity.
The groups also highlighted that ship owners do not bear the costs of preventing or mitigating these harms, thereby making the disposal of end-of-life ships artificially cheap. This, in turn, reduces the economic incentive to design out toxic materials from ships in the first place.
Sigurd Enge, Senior Advisor at the Bellona Foundation, criticized the Hong Kong Convention for not addressing the problems it was intended to solve. He noted that the convention has already been adopted by sub-standard shipbreaking yards in India and Bangladesh, meaning that there will be no significant change in practice. Enge emphasized the importance of the Basel Convention and the EU’s Ship Recycling Regulation as blueprints for reforming the IMO’s Hong Kong Convention, calling on Europe, with its substantial fleet, to take thelead in supporting technology and incentives to establish alternative and competitive recycling facilities.
In conclusion, concerns have been raised about the shortcomings of the Hong Kong Convention in ensuring ethical, safe, and environmentally sound ship recycling practices. Criticisms have been directed at its weak standards, enforcement mechanisms, and failure to prevent the dumping of toxic ships in developing countries. The convention has been deemed insufficient in comparison to existing laws such as the Basel Convention and the EU Ship Recycling Regulation. It has been argued that the convention endorses harmful shipbreaking practices, neglects labor rights and hazardous waste management rules, and lacks worker protection provisions. The groups are calling for revisions to the convention to align it with environmental justice, labor rights, and circular economy objectives. The implementation of the convention in Bangladesh has raised concerns, prompting the need for changes to ensure sustainable ship recycling goals. The groups also highlight the responsibility of ship owners and the importance of the Basel Convention and the EU’s Ship Recycling Regulation in driving the necessary reform in the ship recycling sector.