EU member states are to share a database of ships believed to be involved in criminal activity after taking on board the idea first proposed by Malta.

Last year, Malta suggested the setting up of a single database of vessels involved in illicit activities to help countries make informed decisions about whether they should flag or reflag ships.

At present, this information is not always shared between countries, making it difficult for law enforcement and regulators to stop suspected criminal ships from sailing out of their ports.

Malta’s idea would make it easier for countries to clamp down on criminal activity at sea as it would be simpler for them to identify offenders taking advantage of loopholes in international maritime law to license their vessels.

Malta first presented the proposal during a symposium organised by the International Maritime Organisation and International Maritime Law Institute in March last year.

It was then raised again at a follow-up event this March. 

Sources close to Prime Minister Robert Abela said that, since then, talks had been held with Brussels over the matter and, in April, the European Commission indicated it would be working to introduce the database across the EU in the coming months.

However, the IMO has still not committed to implementing the idea.

The Maltese proposal is to create a global database under the auspices of the IMO that includes all vessels or companies subject to international sanctions.

Suspicious vessels were still able to obtain flag services

The database would be accessible to all IMO member states, allowing them to add and check if any ships that apply for a flag are suspected of being involved in criminal activity, subject to international sanctions or have ultimate beneficial owners that are unknown.

The waters just off Malta’s coast are known to be rife with contraband and other smuggling related activity, particularly linked to Italian organised crime and Libyan militia groups in recent years. 

The matter was cast in the international spotlight back in 2017 when the Italian authorities clamped down on illegal fuel shipments taking place around an area known as Hurd’s Bank.

The shallow sandbank to the east of Malta lies just outside the country’s jurisdiction. The Maltese players in that alleged racket were finally charged in court earlier this year.   

Meanwhile, the head of Malta’s sanctions board, Neville Aquilina, said the push for a comprehensive list of known criminal ships will help ease complex investigations that span across a number of years and jurisdictions.

“Mechanisms for the full implementation of UN sanctions requirements are either too weak or inexistent,” he told an IMO symposium a few weeks ago. 

Aquilina noted that suspicious vessels were still able to obtain flag services even if they were subject to UN Security Council sanctions.

Under the current system, countries that deflag a vessel as a result of sanctions have no legal obligation to inform other states about that action or to share information about action taken against a specific vessel or company.

The result is that ships deflagged for sanctions violations in one jurisdiction can obtain a new flag in a different one.

Every vessel at sea must be registered with a flag state, with ships legally obliged to adhere to the laws of that state. A merchant vessel can only be registered with one state but can switch flag states if the owners so wish.

Flag states are responsible for enforcing regulations on vessels flying their flag. 

The issue is especially important to Malta as the country operates the world’s sixth-largest ship register and lies in the middle of a key maritime route.

In recent years, Malta has de-flagged a significant number of vessels to ensure it complies with sanctions and deflagged others that were suspected of breaching UN sanctions.

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