Thursday, November 13, 2014

ITF And Others Condemn Sewol Ferry Sentences

The International Transport Workers’ 

Federation(ITF) Condemns  the Sewol Ferry 


The ITF condemned South Korea’s sentencing of the Sewol ferry Captain and crew, describing the 36 year sentence handed down to Captain Lee Joon-Seok as “excessive and unjust”. We, American Admiralty Information Services, (including American Admiralty Books, this blog) were highly critical in print as soon as the sentences were handed down. Like us the ITF is worried about the growing trend to criminalize all maritime mishaps. Marine accidents often are high consequence events which drive unusual levels of public concern, often anger and indignation. Such accidents are often the result of complex "causation matrixes" often involving decisions by corporate managerial personnel and government regulators ashore. But the seamen on scene are ready targets. They are there, they do make mistakes on occasion, and they are too often viewed by society as vagabond loners, as opposed to family bread winners, the actual case for most. Any professional mariner caught up in a high consequence accident has a world of trouble but governments around the world of late have added to the misery by criminalizing every aspect of high consequence marine accidents ....for the Captain and crew. 

 In the Sewol case the South Korean government knew early on that the ferry owner had built an extra deck to increase profits but negatively affecting stability. Such a plan required approval by national maritime regulatory authorities and the ship's classification society. To their credit the South Korean Coast Guard attempted to arrest the owner, who committed suicide. Apparently that ended any attempt to affix criminal liability beyond the crew. The crew of course never conspired or planned or even knew about the hidden defect that killed so many young people. Instead they were caught up in the predictable results, and made some fatal tactical errors that added to the deaths. But a scapegoat was needed due to public anger and so the Captain was put on trial for his life. Luckily he received 36 years, which since he is 67 amounts to "life in prison". What he should have faced was permanent revocation of his license, and personal civil liability. He would have died in poverty and professional disgrace whether he really deserved it or not. One professional mariner in the crew was in fact convicted of homicide for refusing to help two individuals and probably deserves a harsh sentence as a deterrent to others. But otherwise none of the convicted serving sentences from 5 to 20 years or more did anything involving any criminal intent or present any danger to society. Since they all were bound to lose their professional mariner's credentials for their faulty professional emergency judgement calls they don't even represent a latent threat of poor professional performance to the public. We can not see that the harsh sentences in this case amount to anything but the satisfaction of a mob that the government didn't want looking too closely into the government's role in the accident. That's our take on the events, here is what the ITF said:

 "The ITF believes that the judgment is based more on emotion and the need to find someone to blame than justice,” stated Heindel. “The sentencing of the captain and the other seafarers is too severe and does not take into account the actions or lack of actions by others in the industry."

 "The ITF seafarers’ section committee will meet next week in London and consider an appropriate ongoing response to this tragic matter"

The ITF wasn't the only mariner's organization to note this case and the growing world trend to criminalize crews on scant facts in the wake of high consequence accidents.

"A statement Tuesday from the UK-based seafarers rights group, Seafarers’ Rights International (SRI), agreed with ITF’s comments that the judgement was emotionally driven, but stopped short of condemning sentences."

"Deirdre Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of SRI, said: “This disaster has been beset with tragedies and sadness from the beginning. The reported comments of the South Korean president Park Geun-hye in the aftermath of the disaster that the conduct of the Master and some crew was ‘like an act of murder’ will have added to the heightened emotional context and might have made it difficult for any court to be dispassionate."

We believe that this growing global tendency to criminalize officers and crew immediately in the wake of high consequence accidents is generally an attempt to limit the scope of investigations. The fast track to criminal indictments of crew members is meant  to turn blind eyes towards the others in the accident causation matrix, often people who acted out of profit motives with real reckless and negligent attitudes for the traveling public or marine environment. These "pillars of society" have their behaviors and decisions go unexamined while professional mariners who may make faulty decisions while under extreme duress get jailed and investigations are concluded as soon as the keys to their cells are thrown away. 


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