ISPS Code – Yesterday and Today

by | Thursday, August 21, 2014 |

In July of 2004, the International Ship and Port Security code (ISPS) was created in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The 10-year-old code required merchant ships in international trade to be certified to an established security standard. Now in 2014, let’s take a look at the ISPS and where it stands today.

Creating the ISPS Code

Like nearly all maritime legislation that is initiated by a maritime accident or disaster, the ISPS code was also created following a disaster – but one on land.

Merchant ships have traditionally entered territorial ports and waters with little red tape or hindrance in peace time, as a way of facilitating trade.With that kind of easy access to seaports, many security experts were concerned that merchant ships could easily be used by terrorists – as means of transportation or as weapons themselves.Following 9/11, it was clear that those experts were right; consequently, legislation was necessary to protect both the vessels and the ports.

Implementing the Code

In December of 2002, a SOLAS conference was held at IMO headquarters, and the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code was adopted.The Code came into full force on July 1, 2004, record time for this time of legislation.Especially considering that in such a brief time, approximately 50,000 vessels were certified, and hundreds of thousands of personnel and seafarers were trained to be Ship Security Officers (SSO) and Company Security Officers (CSO).

The definition of maritime terrorism

The shipping industry has been dealing with piracy and stowaway threats for a very long time.For decades, ship owners’ associations and administrations have been issuing regulations to assist seafarers in dealing with dangers like these.In fact, it was over 30 years ago that the IMO and International Chamber of Shipping issued security guidelines for such threats.

Unfortunately, even over all that time, before the ISPS Code, specific instructions on how to protect a ship against terrorists were never issued.

According to the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, maritime terrorism is defined as, “…the undertaking of terrorist acts and activities within the maritime environment, using or against vessels or fixed platforms at sea or in port, or against any one of their passengers or personnel, against coastal facilities or settlements, including tourist resorts, port areas and port towns or cities.”

Though maritime terrorism isn’t rampant, there has been and continues to be a steady stream of incidents over the last 50 years or more.Some of these incidents are on a low level, while others are more serious and receive extensive media coverage, like in the case of the Santa Maria:

The hijacking of the Portuguese passenger ship Santa Maria is considered to be first case of maritime terrorism. On January 22, 1961, 24 leftist Portuguese terrorists hijacked the luxury cruise liner. The ship carried 600 passengers and a crew of 300. The hijackers embarked the vessel as passengers at the port of La Guairá in Venezuela and on the Dutch island of Curacao, with weapons hidden in suitcases. The terrorists took over command of the ship, but eventually surrendered when they were given political asylum in Brazil.

Maritime terrorism since the Code was adopted

Supporters of the ISPS Code argue that it has been successful, as no serious incidents of maritime terrorism have occurred since it was implemented.But opponents argue that the code has been little to no help in protecting vessels and seafarers against modern-day piracy.Regardless of the varying opinions, however, terrorism and piracy are very different crimes and they require different approaches.In fact, the link between pirates and terrorism is actually very weak.

As with all new legislation, the ISPS Code initially met skepticism from seafarers.But the Code is now accepted as just another part of the shipping business, and most people appreciate the advantages.

Ongoing challenges

Going forward, the Code can be and will need to be modified for the better.The IMO lists some of the ongoing challenges as the following:

  • ISPS Code implementation has a lack of national legislation/guidelines
  • ISPS Code must be a means to address all maritime security threats (not just terrorism)
  • How to decide on appropriate risk assessment methodology
  • How to disseminate good practices with regard to port facility security
  • Who should audit the auditor?
  • What to do about ships encountering difficulties when calling at a high-risk port

With the threats of terrorism and piracy consistently increasing and changing, this important piece of legislation will likely evolve and change with those threats.We will keep you updated on any new developments.

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