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French Ship Stirs Up International Dispute

Greenpeace activists launch a postcard signature campaign protesting the decommissioned French warship, Clemenceau, in New Delhi, 15 January 2006. The Clemenceau, which is being brought to an Indian breaker's yard for dismantling, is insulated with asbestos, and Greenpeace and three other groups have tried for months to block the transfer on the grounds that Indian shipyard workers are not properly protected from the hazards of working with asbestos, which can cause fatal lung diseases. Egypt approved the Clemenceau's transit through the Suez Canal after the ship was stranded for three days over fears it was an environmental hazard. AFP photo by Prakash Singh.

Paris (UPI) Jan 16, 2006
After defending France for roughly four decades, after aborted journeys to scrap yards in Turkey and Greece, the Clemenceau warship has embarked on yet another odyssey with an uncertain outcome.

The final port of call - in theory - is Alang, India, home to the world's largest ship breaking industry. But today the decommissioned vessel remains in limbo near Egypt, waiting a final ruling by India's supreme court, which is mulling whether dismantling it will endanger the health of Alang's workers.

On Monday, the court barred the Clemenceau from entering Indian waters until Feb. 13, when its decision is expected. From a practical point of view, the ruling changes little. The ship was not expected to reach India until March.

But it adds to a growing international spat on the status of the ship, which environmental groups claim is laden with asbestos and violates international shipping conventions.

Critics like Greenpeace International argue that hundreds of tons of cancer-causing asbestos remain on the Clemenceau. The environment group also argues that breaking up the Clemenceau in India violates the Basle Convention preventing the trade in hazardous materials.

Equally important, critics argue, Clemenceau's saga underscores a double standard in applying health and environmental regulations: That what is unacceptable in the West is fine for the developing world.

"They have full legislation to compensate people. They have obligatory legislation on how to take away asbestos," says Martin Besieux, the Brussels-based toxics campaigner for Greenpeace International, referring to the French government's asbestos laws.

"Now," Besieux said, "they will try to avoid these costs for themselves, and try to put it on the health and environment of India. That's a scandal."

Last week, two Greenpeace activists boarded the Clemenceau to verify its claim.

The group was also among four environmental organizations who sought an injunction against dispatching the Clemenceau to Alang's ship wreaking yards. But in late December, a Paris court rejected their petition.

French authorities maintain that only about 45 or so tons of asbestos remain on board, and that the rest was removed before the ship left the port of Toulon in late December. And as a former battle ship, the Clemenceau does not fall within the Basle Convention guidelines.

Paris received good news Sunday, when the Egyptian government apparently retracted an initial decision by the country's environment ministry to bar the war ship from entering the Suez Canal en route to India.

French newspapers suggested Cairo's course reversal took place after French authorities applied strong political pressure, which possibly included a call by French President Jacques Chirac to his counterpart, Hosni Mubarak.

In an interview on RTL radio Sunday, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie expressed optimism that the Indian court would ultimately rule in favor of Paris as well.

"The Indian supreme court is looking at the problem; we're going to bring it all the elements that it wishes so that it can make its decision," Alliot-Marie said, adding, "for my part, I think these elements will convince it, like they convinced me."

The current standoff is only the latest chapter in the Clemenceau controversy. In 2003, efforts to dismantle the ship -- via Spain, Turkey and Greece -- collapsed for a variety of reasons. The Clemenceau left France again on Dec. 31, this time bound for India.

For some, the Clemenceau's failure to find a final resting place is another benchmark of France's decline -- a favored subject of debate here.

"With the sad voyage of the Clemenceau, we are advertising our defeats and our inability to take things into hand," wrote France's local Journal de la Haute-Marne, in a Monday editorial.

For its part, Greenpeace argues the stakes are far broader than simply the dismantling of one toxic vessel.

"The French state with its Clemenceau has 55 other ships that are waiting to be dismantled," said Besieux, the organizations toxic campaigner. "The UK has 40. And we know that in the U.S. there are 600 ships waiting to be dismantled. All of them are government ships, full of asbestos, PCPs and all this other stuff."

If Western governments don't follow international regulations, Besieux asked, "how can we expect the [private] industry to change its behavior?"

The Clemenceau standoff also adds to a long-running controversy surrounding the ship breaking industry, which is primarily located in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

In places like Alang, workers are exposed to a rash of risks ranging from explosions to contact with various toxic chemicals. Protective standards are either not in place or, if they are, not enforced. Workers lack gloves, proper clothing and other basic, protective equipment, according to numerous reports.

But the shipyards also offer scarce employment in these poverty-stricken countries.

Asia's shipyards are in demand more than ever, since the European Union banned single-hulled "garbage" ships, following a massive, 2002 oil spill off the Spanish coast.

All the more reason, Greenpeace and other critics argue, to establish international ship-breaking standards -- and the build the capacity to ensure they're adhered to.

"So that a French ship that's going to be decontaminated in India will be done according to the same standards used in the homeland," said Besieux of Greenpeace.

Source: United Press International

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