Treacherous Waters

The latest bad publicity for the global cruise industry is just the tip of the iceberg.

It's not a great time, PR-wise, for the global cruise industry. It would be bad enough with all the attention surrounding the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and James Cameron's 3-D release of his blockbuster movie. But contemporary cruise disasters have been in the news with disturbing regularity as well.

In the latest incident, on March 30, a fire broke out on the luxury cruise ship Azamara Quest, forcing it to make an emergency stop at a Malaysian port. Thankfully, there were no deaths and the ship avoided the fate of the Costa Concordia, which ran aground off Giglio Island near Tuscany in January, killing at least 25 people, with seven more missing and presumed dead. Just a few weeks later, on Feb. 27, another of the Costa line's ships -- the Allegra -- lost power in the Indian Ocean after an engine-room fire, leaving more than 1,000 people without power or water for nearly a week as the ship was towed to the Seychelles.

The media coverage of the Costa disaster has focused on Capt. Francesco Schettino, who stands accused of both piloting the vessel too close to the island as a publicity stunt and abandoning ship while thousands were still aboard. But these incidents are much bigger than the actions of one captain or even one company. They are evidence of an industry out of control.

Rather than being the exception to the rule, the Costa disasters are the products of a cruise-industry culture in which passenger safety, environmental impact, the exploitation of workers, and crime -- including rampant sexual assault -- are too often merely swept under the rug. If legislative steps aren't taken to bring the industry under control, these recent unfortunate events may just be the tip of the iceberg.

The cruise industry likes to bill itself as the safest mode of commercial transportation. The claim is made on the Cruise Lines International Association's website and is frequently repeated when reports of shipboard accidents or crimes have been raised in the media or in congressional hearings. But whether a cruise ship is safe is a matter of perspective. The facts are that 16 cruise ships have sunk since 1980, 99 have run aground since 1973, 79 have experienced onboard fires since 1990, and 73 have had collisions since 1990. Since 2000, there have been 100 incidents in which ships have gone adrift, lost power, experienced severe lists -- when a ship nearly tips -- or had other events that posed a safety risk to passengers.

Admittedly, passenger deaths are infrequent. As we saw, however, following the 1994 sinking of the cruise ship Estonia in the Baltic Sea, just one accident has the potential for massive casualties -- more than 850 perished when that ship sunk within 30 minutes of taking on water during a storm.

Given the number of incidents, it's surprising that major cruise lines can still be so lax when it comes to safety precautions. That the Costa Concordia was at sea without a functioning black box -- imagine an airplane being allowed to fly passengers without a black box -- is a testament to the less-than-conscientious attitude of the industry to passenger safety and security. (There were subsequent news reports suggesting the black box was recovered, but these appear to refer to bridge voice recordings, which are quite different.)

Unfortunately, ship accidents are not the only safety concerns facing cruise passengers. Between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008, the FBI received 421 reports of onboard crime from cruise ships, including 115 simple assaults, 16 assaults with serious bodily injury, 101 thefts, and 154 sex-related incidents. Cruise ships made these crime reports following March 2007 congressional hearings in which the cruise industry made a commitment to report to the FBI all crimes against U.S. citizens (though the data also include some reports regarding foreign nationals). The rate of sexual assault on Carnival Cruise Lines in 2007 and 2008 was a surprisingly high 115 per 100,000 passengers.

In addition to safety concerns, the cruise industry also poses major risks to the environment. These were brought to the forefront in the late 1990s after Royal Caribbean International was fined more than $30 million for illegally discharging oil and hazardous chemicals into U.S. and Alaskan state waters and for making false statements to the U.S. Coast Guard. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2000 that between 1993 and 1998, the U.S. government confirmed 87 illegal discharges from cruise ships (81 involving oil and six involving garbage or plastic). Seventeen "other alleged incidents" were referred to the countries where the cruise ships were registered.

Royal Caribbean is hardly the only culprit. Holland America Line was fined $2 million in 1998 for pumping oily bilge water into the Inside Passage off the Alaskan coast, in addition to other violations. In April 2002, Carnival Corp. entered a plea agreement and paid an $18 million fine, pleading guilty to numerous pollution incidents from 1996 through 2001. These included discharging oily waste into the sea from ships' bilges and falsifying records of oily bilge water on six ships to conceal company practices. A few months later, in July 2002, Norwegian Cruise Line pleaded guilty to having discharged oily bilge water for several years and to having falsified discharge logs; it was fined $1.5 million.

There are more recent environmental offenses as well. In 2008, 12 of 20 ships permitted to discharge in Alaskan waters (the only jurisdiction where cruise ship discharges are monitored and measured) violated discharge limits, logging 45 violations involving seven pollutants, among them ammonia, chlorine, copper, fecal coliform, and zinc. The year 2009 was even worse, with 13 of 18 ships that were permitted to discharge in Alaskan waters violating Alaska's discharge limits during the season, racking up 66 viola­tions involving nine pollutants.

Many environmental offenses regularly perpetrated by cruise ships -- include the discharge of sewage, the dumping overboard of solid waste, the use of incinerators (which are less regulated than incinerators on land), and the discharge of oily bilge -- go unpunished due to the patchwork of U.S. regulations, which often allows cruise lines to pollute with impunity: Regulations in Alaska, Washington, and California are relatively stringent; there is very little regulation in Oregon, the Gulf states, and much of the Eastern Seaboard.

Europe isn't much better. The European Union has regulations applying to air emissions from fuel while ships are in port. The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, known as MARPOL, sets standards for shipboard discharges, but enforcement of these standards is inconsistent and is often the responsibility of the country where a ship is registered, which is not necessarily the same as where the ship operates. Carnival Cruise Lines' ships, for example, are registered in Panama.

The cruise industry's atrocious environmental record is matched, perhaps, only by its disregard for workers' rights. Workers on foreign-flagged vessels, even those owned by U.S.-based corporations, generally work without union protection and are frequently subjected to arbitrary wage cuts. As Paul Chapman, founder of the New York-based Center for Seafarers' Rights, told the Los Angeles Times: "A ship owner can go any place in the world, pick up anybody he wants, on almost any terms. If the owner wants to maximize profit at the expense of people, it's a piece of cake."

Although the U.S. minimum wage was extended to ships registered in the United States in 1961, Congress left intact the exemption for foreign ships. A 1963 Supreme Court decision extended this exception by ruling that U.S. labor laws, including the right to organize, do not apply to foreign vessels engaged in American commerce, even if the owners of these ships are from the United States. This is the context in which the modern cruise ship industry developed and took hold. Today, as reflected in records disclosed in discovery in several court cases, the typical worker on a cruise ship has a mandatory 77-hour work week, can work for 10 to 12 months without a day off, and can earn as little as $450 per month.

Keeping these practices in place requires that cruise lines violate long-standing U.S. law. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, better known as the Jones Act, provides U.S. maritime workers with the right to sue for pain and suffering damages from job-related injuries. But in the mid- to late-2000s, following settlement of Borcea vs. Carnival, the cruise industry began including arbitration clauses in cruise-ship workers' contracts -- they are now commonplace. These clauses have dire consequences for crew members. They mean that a foreign cruise-ship worker on a U.S.-based ship has limited right to sue his or her employer in U.S. courts because the ship and the company operating the ship are both foreign-registered.

Desire to get around the Jones Act, therefore, gives cruise lines a disincentive to hire American workers. The arbitration clauses, as well as the opinions enforcing them, are thus job killers for Americans because U.S. workers are protected under U.S. labor law, protections not held by non-U.S. workers.

Each of these issues requires urgent attention from both the industry and regulators. Because most accidents are avoidable -- related either to human error or to allowing ships out of port with unresolved mechanical issues -- there is a need for much greater oversight of the industry and stricter enforcement of safety standards. The all-too-cozy relationship between the regulators (the U.S. Coast Guard) and the industry needs to be questioned and better understood, and clearer regulations need to be in place for the Coast Guard to follow. Lawmakers must also recognize that the classification societies entrusted with ship safety standards, such as Lloyd's Register of Shipping in Britain, are not independent in any real sense given that they are paid by the cruise lines to certify those lines' ships. (Ideally they would be paid by and responsible to a disinterested third party.) There needs to be movement from industry self-regulation to an independent system with passenger safety and security as its primary focus. Ships should not be allowed to sail when engines or propulsion systems are known to be faulty or when mechanical or technical issues pose safety concerns.

The easiest solution for environmental issues is reintroduction and passage of the U.S. Clean Cruise Ship Act, which would regulate discharges and put environmental observers or regulators on cruise ships. Given the cruise industry's oft-stated commitment to environmental protection, it would be logical that the industry would embrace the legislation. (The act was last introduced in Congress in 2008, but, like two previous sessions, it failed in committee.)

There also needs to be legislation to address passenger and crew-member rights. The loophole that treats cruise-ship passengers differently from airline passengers under the Death on the High Seas Act needs to be addressed; the fact that a cruise line is not liable for medical malpractice by the medical staff it hires to provide care to its passengers needs to be corrected, as does the fact that foreign cruise-ship workers have no rights under U.S. law with regard to either remuneration or recourse in the case of injury or unfair treatment.

The cruise industry enjoys an enviable position. The corporations are registered offshore, thus avoiding U.S. taxes and regulations, but they benefit from many services paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. For instance, as disclosed in Freedom of Information Act requests, one disappearance from a cruise ship can cost the U.S. Coast Guard more than $800,000; the Carnival Splendor's engine-room fire that left it adrift off the Mexican coast in November 2010 reportedly cost the U.S. government $1.8 million. By registering ships under flags of convenience, the corporations also dodge U.S. labor laws, even though their passengers are mainly Americans. In effect, North Americans taking a cruise enjoy an economic vacation on the backs of the foreign workers employed on these sweatships.

International regulations do apply to the cruise industry, including MARPOL, which is under the authority of the International Maritime Organization, as well as labor codes agreed to under the International Labor Organization. Monitoring and enforcement of many of these conventions, however, is the responsibility of the country where a ship is registered, which means cruise ships face only limited consequences for noncompliance. International cooperation is required to ensure that companies can no longer skirt national regulations by simply registering a ship under a flag of convenience.

The media tends to lose interest in cruise safety a few days after the latest accident. But to prevent the next Costa Concordia from taking place, not to mention the routine abuses to cruise workers and the ocean ecosystem, cruise passengers must demand accountability and sweeping industrywide change. Anything less will be merely rearranging the deck chairs.



The Mess in Mali

How the war on terror ruined a success story in West Africa.

It would be hard to overstate the mess that's been made out of Mali over the last fortnight. A surprise coup, an accelerating rebellion that has split the country in two, and an economic embargo by the landlocked country's neighbors have battered what had been, until recently, a West African success story. Add to that a looming food crisis in the northeast, and you have quite a fine mess. But the world can't turn away: Mali is too important to write off the country's 20-year old democracy as a failed experiment.

The coup was not accidental, as some have argued, but it was definitely improvisational.  On March 22, a mutiny in the country's main garrison turned into a coup d'état as soldiers and junior officers chased President Amadou Toumani Touré from his palace. The coup leaders, angered by a lack of military material and political will to suppress a rebellion in the country's vast Saharan region in the north, dubbed the junta a "National Committee for the Re-establishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State" (CNRDRE).

Its name aside, the junta aims to destroy, not to establish, democratic rule -- the coup took place little more than a month before a scheduled presidential election, in which Touré was not a candidate. Since then, Mali's political parties, trade unions, and civil society organizations have with near unanimity formed a common front with one goal -- to reject the junta and demand a return to civilian rule. Internationally, the regional group ECOWAS slapped harsh sanctions on the junta and threatened military intervention if the constitutional regime is not restored.

The junta now has its back to the wall, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the coup leader, Cpt. Amadou Sanogo, has no real plan to extricate himself from this disaster. The junta's actions have been erratic: It staged the coup in order to fight the war in the north, but then sought peace negotiations with the Tuareg rebels. It proclaimed a new constitution, then rescinded it. And it announced a national conference, only to cancel it when its domestic opponents refused to attend.

In an interview published on April 4, Sanogo claimed that if the situation was allowed to fester, "both Africa and the whole world will one day be its victims." For the first time in the past two weeks, what he's saying makes some sense.

A Tuareg separatist movement called the MNLA has exploited the chaos in the capital to pursue its dream of an independent state in what it terms "the Azawad," an old regional catch-all newly redefined to include most of the Malian Sahara north and east of Timbuktu. The MNLA and various Saharan rebel movements have been at war with the Malian army since January, and the army has been losing consistently. It has suffered a double humiliation: Both Touré and now Sanogo have ordered soldiers to retreat rather than fight, and those units that have stood their ground have been over-run. In one particularly gruesome episode, defeated soldiers in the northern town of Aguelhoc had their throats slit, and images of the atrocity circulated widely.

But though the MNLA has a secular nationalist bent, the rebellion in the north is helping Islamist extremists expand their foothold in the country. The MNLA has been in a loose partnership with Ansar Dine, an Islamist group led by Iyad ag Ghali, a Tuareg who led a major rebellion in the 1990s. Ag Ghali's career is a testament to the tangled web of alliances in the region: His most recent gig was in Libya, where, according to reports, Libya's transitional government encouraged him to lead a large-scale defection of Tuareg fighters from Muammar al-Qadaffi's security forces.

Ag Ghali obliged, but the Libyan rebels' gain was the Malian government's loss when he brought several dozen men in arms into a situation in which a rebellion was already simmering in the Malian Sahara. Since then, he's fallen in with the MNLA, and he seems to have a productive working relationship with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The warriors of Ansar Dine care less about an independent Azawad than they do about an extreme Islamist program. Ansar Dine doesn't communicate much -- theirs is not a media operation -- but it's their black flag that now flies over the northern towns of Timbuktu and Gao.

This partnership is a sticky one. Outside attention is focused on Ansar Dine, but their fighters number only around 200 to 300 men, are locally unpopular, and hold long-term goals that seem to be at odds with those of the MNLA. The latter has many more, and recently received a big boost when one of the Malian army's Tuareg commanders defected, bringing with him several hundred men. Still, the MNLA's military strength is thought to be limited, and the battle-hardened and well-armed men of the Ansar Dine appears increasingly to have taken the upper hand.

The MNLA is aware that the real war for the Azawad will be waged by its media wing. Refusing to be governed by the people of the south and harboring great resentment over the harsh repression of past rebellions, the MNLA wants to be seen as a legitimate nationalist movement. Colluding with the Ansar Dine adds extra bite to MNLA's bark, but it also discredits a movement that wants desperately to be taken seriously by outside actors, particularly France. Talking sharia won't help with that -- nor will stories coming out of Timbuktu and Gao regarding the imposition of a crude, vigilante version of Islamic law. There is no quicker way for the MNLA to lose its thin veneer of respectability than to keep hanging around with the wrong crowd.

Mali has already paid a high price for the failure of French anti-terrorist policies in the Sahara. Mali was long spared the trauma of having its Western visitors kidnapped -- a practice that over the last few years has become one of the Sahara's most profitable industries, generating millions of dollars in ransoms. After a bloody 2010 Franco-Mauritanian raid aimed at rescuing a French hostage from AQIM -- a raid that took place on Malian territory, but without Touré's knowledge -- that all changed. Seven members of AQIM had been killed. Later, the hostage would be, too, but AQIM still wanted revenge: no more gentlemen's agreement not to raid on Malian territory.

Mali became a hunting ground for potential hostages, kidnapped by freelancers or on commission, who could be sold to AQIM. Worse, France dealt a brutal blow to Mali's important tourist industry and its international reputation by effectively declaring the country a "no-go zone."

At the same time, both France and the United States were pushing the central government to reassert control in the desert. In spite of promises made over the last 15 years by successive Malian governments to assure the autonomy of the Saharan region, the zone was being remilitarized. Bringing a halt to that process is where the interests of the secular nationalist MNLA, the newly emergent Ansar Dine, and perhaps AQIM intersect.

Did the Libyan conflict -- and NATO's intervention in it -- light this long fuse? Did Mali lose Timbuktu because NATO saved Benghazi? Informed observers disagree. Some think the conflict was virtually inevitable, with or without men and arms from Libya. Others see a direct knock-on effect from Libya that upset a delicate balance. Whatever the case, it is undeniable that, as a consequence of the Libyan campaign, a stronger, more intense insurgency in the Malian Sahara was not only predictable but predicted. Everyone who was watching saw it coming from afar.

What's the fruit, then, of American action in the Sahel over the last several years? It might be too soon to say definitively, but it appears to be a bitter one. Much has been made of the fact that Sanogo has American military training, and briefly affected a U.S. Marine Corps lapel pin. Those details -- and the fact that he apparently speaks English -- are surely less important than the stunning fact that a decade of American investment in Special Forces training, cooperation between Sahalien armies and the United States, and counterterrorism programs of all sorts run by both the State Department and the Pentagon has, at best, failed to prevent a new disaster in the desert and, at worst, sowed its seeds.

Signs of the failure of U.S. counterterrorism policy in Mali abound wherever one looks. Military cooperation and training have not helped the army to hold the line in the north, and all the training in the world was not going to convince Touré to lead Mali into fighting what he termed "other people's wars" in the desert. Now it is no longer his decision to make, and the country's future leadership will have no choice but to prosecute a war that has become its own. The national territory is now divided de facto, but neither Mali nor its neighbors will accept its division de jure.

At the moment, the political game in Mali resembles two games of three-dimensional chess being played simultaneously. The first game is in the capital, where Sanogo is in over his head and seems to have no real plan for what to do next. That political game is currently at a stalemate, but a variety of opponents are looking to maneuver Sanogo into checkmate. In the second game, the Malian Sahara represents both the board and the prize -- and neither the Malian military nor its rivals knows what the rules are. But the game is on.