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Panama’s Surprising IMO Win: Unpacking The UN Agency’s Controversial Election

Photo: International Maritime Organization

Panama’s Surprising IMO Win: Unpacking The UN Agency’s Controversial Election

John Konrad
Total Views: 2490
July 18, 2023

By Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) In a surprising twist, Arsenio Antonio Dominguez Velasco of Panama emerged victorious in the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO) election for secretary-general, unexpectedly trumping China’s robustly backed candidate, Zhang Xiaojie, and fending off late competition from Finland and Turkey. This election signifies a notable transformation in leadership, causing a ripple of discomfort due to Panama’s intimate connections with China and its controversial status as a Flag of Convenience (FOC) nation. The maritime industry frequently reproaches FOCs for lenient laws safeguarding seafarers, lackadaisical attitude towards inquiries into ship mishaps, and the troubling registration of Ghost Fleet ships implicated in the transport of Russian oil.

Additionally, there is palpable disappointment among some due to the election of a seasoned IMO insider – the organization has been criticized by many as being a source of chaos rather than solutions to a growing number of maritime problems around the world – over progressive candidates, such as Dominica’s Dr. Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry. The latter, if elected, would have been the first woman at the helm of the organization. She also positioned herself as a strong climate change candidate, and promised to implement reforms to combat sexual assault at sea.

Did China Support Dominguez Velasco?

Why would China support Panama? Nobody is certain they did but thousands of Chinese-built ships are registered with Panama and China has, over the years, built strong diplomatic, economic, and personal ties with Panama, a fact that has not been lost on analysts. Following a switch of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China in 2017 under former President Juan Carlos Varela, Panama has seen a multi-billion dollar surge in Chinese investment in the country. Infrastructure projects ranging from bridges and commercial ports to a rail line and a cruise ship terminal have been the main areas of Chinese focus.

“China is seeking greater influence inside U.N. agencies—and it’s entered the race to head one with authority over global shipping rules,” warned Brett D. Schaefer a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Institute in a May report. “We have seen what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is capable of when awarded (influence at UN agencies). One need only look from 2015 to 2021, when Chinese national Fang Liu undermined the mission and integrity of the ICAO. Specifically, she used her influence to block Taiwanese participation, undermine accountability, and conceal a Chinese cyber-attack on the ICAO that spread malware to member governments and private industry.”

The Chinese delegation has big smiles as they congratulate Dominguez Velasco

Even if the Panama delegation is not directly influenced by China, the election has raised some concerns due to Panama’s association as a “flag of convenience” FOC which, along with other FOCs, ship the majority of Chinese exports. This term refers to the practice of countries registering ships under flags with less stringent requirements, leading to substandard practices. Most concerning is the fact that Panama is among the FOCs that have registered tankers suspected of transporting Russian oil, forming part of the so-called Ghost Fleet. The largest buyer of Ghost Fleet oil is China. This combination of Russian oil, Chinese buyers, and flag of convenience registered ships is what former Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral By James Stavridis called a “ticking time bomb“.

Panama’s Spotty Record

In addition to registering Ghost Fleet ships, Panama (and other Flag Of Convenience registries) has a spotty record for safety. When, for example, an American-flagged ship is lost at sea the investigation reports – handled by the NTSB – are often hundreds of pages long and include costly science and black box recovery operations. Panama rarely recovers black boxes that are submerged and their incident investigation reports often appear quickly written and lack scientific vigor.

Responding to these concerns, Panama’s maritime authority had earlier announced efforts to clean up its fleet and prevent the detention of substandard Panama-flagged ships in foreign ports. This commitment, however, has not eased the suspicions of some advocacy groups who monitor global maritime activities closely.

Women At Sea

The results of the election were also a setback for women’s representation in maritime leadership. Despite having three strong women candidates from Finland, Kenya, and Dominica, none were able to get the votes needed to win. This is viewed as a missed opportunity to address some of the pressing issues in the maritime industry such as sexual assaults at sea and the gender imbalance in maritime roles.

Some critics of the IMO have expressed disappointment at the election of an insider, Dominguez Velasco, who currently serves as the director of the Marine Environment Division of the IMO. These critics argue that the organization has been lax in its duty to regulate emissions from shipping and to prevent sexual harassment at sea, amongst other issues. This IMO division received particularly harsh criticism for its handling of the Wakashio oil shipped in 2020.

Also Read: Who Blocked The IMO From Passing New Midshipman X Initiatives?

US Delegation Under Fire

This election also comes at a time when the US Coast Guard – which leads the US delegation and votes on the election – is under fire for sexual assault at sea coverups.

During a recent U.S. Senate Committee hearing, the Coast Guard was criticized for its handling of sexual assault cases and its lack of accountability and transparency. Most notably, Senators Maria Cantwell and Ted Cruz expressed anger over the USCG’s handling of sexual assaults within the maritime industry and demanded an Inspector General investigation of the coverup which will likely include a full review of why the USCG has made little progress in advancing Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s concerns with the IMO, and if a USCG delegate to the IMO blocked new Mishipman X SASH initiatives at an IMO committee last year.

“Senators took turns raging at the Coast Guard’s ‘heartbreaking, maddening, frustrating and intolerable‘ record of handling sexual assaults. Furious legislators slapped the embattled Service with an Inspector General investigation and demanded greater accountability from a Coast Guard that is struggling to reconcile a demanding, zero-defect culture with an imperfect reality,” said Craig Hooper of Forbes. “When the Coast Guard cannot move accurate information up through its own Command Chain, and the assorted pressures of the Coast Guard’s zero-defect culture show signs of bending and breaking the Coast Guard’s core values of honor, respect, and devotion to duty, it’s a problem.”

Yet as infuriated as the US Senate is at the US Coast Guard, the IMO – and the USCG members of the US delegation – have done even less to prevent assaults in the wake of the Midshipman X scandal, and the incidents of harassment, assault, and rape at sea aboard ships of many nations which have been reported to the IMO.

What is Arsenio Antonio Dominguez Velasco’s plan to protect women at sea? We don’t know because, unfortunately, his campaign speech, available via Vimeo, fails to address the issue at all.

The revelations about the USCG’s handling of sexual assault allegations and IMO’s lack of action preventing rapes at sea show that more work needs to be done in creating safe working environments aboard ships. The IMO has been criticized for its perceived inaction on the issue, and many are wondering how Dominguez Velasco will address SASH (Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment) concerns.

The Vote

Despite these criticisms, the electoral process proceeded as planned today with Dominguez Velasco securing 21 votes in the final round, against 8 for Finland and 11 for Turkey. The election of Dominguez Velasco will be submitted to the 33rd session of the Assembly of IMO later this year for approval.

Before joining the IMO, Dominguez Velasco worked for the Panama Maritime Authority and has a wealth of experience in maritime affairs. His tenure as the secretary-general will commence on January 1st, 2024, and he is expected to serve a four-year term.

Winds Of Change

The election of Dominguez Velasco comes at a critical time for the IMO as the organization struggles to balance the demands of environmental sustainability and industry growth while protecting seafarers from harassment and assault. Just two weeks prior to the election, the IMO agreed on a revised strategy to decarbonize the global shipping industry. This strategy includes reducing emissions by at least 20% by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions around 2050. Most climate experts agree that strong leadership is needed in IMO for global carbon targets to be met. Time will tell if Arsenio Dominguez will play that leadership role on the world stage and travel to meet world leaders at global summits or, like most of his predecessors, remain mostly within the once smoke-filled rooms of IMO headquarters in London.

Either way, the appointment of Dominguez Velasco as the secretary-general will certainly be influential in the coming years as the IMO strives to implement its ambitious environmental agenda while maintaining its regulatory mandate. It remains to be seen how these dynamics will unfold under Panama’s leadership.


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