TARTU - Estonian ports are on track to comply with new international rules designed to safeguard the shipping industry from growing terror threats.
The new international ship and port facility security code was adopted last December by member states of the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations' maritime watchdog.
Some 55,000 ships and 20,000 port facilities worldwide will have to implement the new, three-level security scheme by July 1. According to Anton Gans, head of foreign relations of the Port of Tallinn, preparations are underway for the Baltic country to fulfill the new requirements in time.
"We are currently working on the risk assessment of ports and security plans," he said. "Our goal is to obtain the ISPS security certificate by July 1."
The Port of Tallinn manages four harbors on Estonia's northern coast and accounts for some 80 percent of all cargo traffic, including the lion's share of transit, which makes up a tenth of gross domestic product. The port also serves some 6 million passengers annually.
The new security code obliges port authorities to conduct a security assessment of all local ports involved in international commercial activities. The goal is to identify critical weaknesses and actual threats and develop relevant security plans. Ships of more than 500 gross tons are required to undergo a similar procedure to receive a certificate of security.
Owners and operators of ports and ships must also designate a number of security officers.
"It is currently impossible to estimate the possible costs, as it is an ongoing process," Gans said. However, passenger traffic should not be harmed by the new code, as most of the security measures are in place already. As to cargo, the ISPS code specifically states that any measures must not create new obstacles for ports or operators, said Gans.
According to a recent Reuters report, the United States for one is planning aggressive implementation of the new rules and could turn back calling ships that fail to meet the new standards or whose cargo originates from uncertified ports. According to sources, this could threaten the oil trade, as several major producers from the OPEC cartel are nowhere near meeting the new criteria.
Goods moved by ship account for some 53 percent of world trade, and various experts have long pointed to inadequacies in maritime security. The seas would probably be the easiest way to smuggle or deliver weapons of mass destruction, such as a nuclear warhead, a "dirty bomb" spreading radioactive contamination or chemical and biological warfare agents. As security tightens at airports and other transport hubs, merchant fleet and cruise ships would still be an easy target for potential wrongdoers.
Estonia has so far been conveniently far from the global terror scare. However, the recent commuter train bombings in Madrid that left more than 200 dead have brought the threat closer, indicating that other means of transportation in other European countries could be similarly vulnerable.
What's more, the Madrid attacks were purportedly a terrorist response to Spain's participation in the war on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Estonian soldiers are currently serving with the U.S.-led coalition in both countries, and although the connection appears vague, there is some ground for speculation.
The ISPS code was most strongly advocated by the United States, whose economy is heavily reliant on maritime transport. After the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. authorities even issued warnings that terror groups could use speedboats or scuba divers to deliver explosives into its ports.
Although none of this has happened so far, there are some grim reminders, including the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen where suicide bombers blew up their explosive-packed boat near the American warship, killing 17 crew members. A similar attack, if carried out on an oil or chemical tanker, could yield unthinkable results, especially in a small transit-dependent country like Estonia.