30 March 2009

Bangladesh: Shipbreaking Victory

PHOTO: ©Brendan Corr, www.brendancorrphotography.co.uk
We all know how ships are born, how majestic vessels are nudged into the ocean with a bottle of champagne. But few of us know how they die. And hundreds of ships meet their death every year. From five-star ocean liners, to grubby freighters, literally dumped with all their steel, their asbestos, their toxins on the beaches of some of the poorest countries in the world, countries like Bangladesh. You can’t really believe how bad it is here, until you see it. It could be as close as you’ll get to hell on earth, with the smoke, the fumes, and the heat. The men who labor here are the wretched of the earth, doing dirty, dangerous work, for little more than $1 a day.”
Bob Simon, CBS News, on 60 Minutes, November 2006

Ever since 2000, Rizwana Hasan, an ELAW partner and the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), has been taking on the shipbreaking companies. She has been trying to improve the working conditions for shipbreaking laborers and prevent environmental damage caused by the work. She called on ELAW Staff Scientist Mark Chernaik to help fight the abuses.

Then, at the 2003 ELAW Annual Meeting, Rizwana spoke with ELAW colleagues from around the world about the horrific problem with shipbreaking yards in her country. She asked for their assistance in challenging the ship owners – who, despite her efforts, had been abusing workers and the environment for years.

She sat around a table with Mark, and was joined by ELAW partners from her region – and worked on her petition to end this scourge. She then went back to Bangladesh and filed the lawsuit.

And waited.  But she didn’t wait idly.  She organized a seminar on “Workers Security in Shipbreaking Yards in Bangladesh: Legal Norms and Reality” in Chittagong, near the shipbreaking yards at Bhatiary and Sitakunda. She filed petitions seeking to deny entry into Bangladesh of two toxic-laden ships, the Alfaship, a Greek-owned oil tanker, and the SS Norway, a French-owned ocean liner, and succeeded in preventing them from entering and further polluting the bay.

But the usual delay in the legal system slowed down the ultimate verdict.  As she waited, hundreds of workers died and thousands more were injured or became sick from the toxic conditions. She watched a once pristine beach become a waste-yard of toxic junk. And she worried that the environmental laws would never be enforced.

But she waits no more.

After more than 5 years of dogged litigation by BELA, the Bangladesh Supreme Court ordered:
  • Uncertified shipbreaking operations must close within two weeks;
  • Shipbreaking operations must obtain environmental certification before operating in Bangladesh;
  • Ships must be cleaned of all hazardous materials before entering the country; and
  • Shipbreaking operations must guarantee safe working conditions for workers and environmentally sound disposal plans for wastes.
This is a tremendous victory for environmental justice and the people and beaches of Bangladesh. This courtroom victory will echo around the world and help end the unjust practice of sending toxic ships to distant beaches where people without adequate protection break them down.

We congratulate Rizwana for this stunning victory!

Source: Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW). Spring 2009

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