The Netherlands may incidentally refuse ships access to the southern shipping route above the Wadden Islands. This measure can be taken in the event of acute danger by using its “right to intervene”. That is what the Utrecht professor of International Law, Fred Soons, said on Thursday 12 March during a round table discussion with the Parliamentary Committee for Infrastructure and Water Management.

The meeting with members of parliament and experts was entirely devoted to the shipping routes along the Wadden Islands and whether a ban could possibly be imposed on ships wishing to sail the disputed southern route.

On this route, which runs close to the Wadden Islands, the MSC Zoe lost hundreds of containers in early 2019. Last February, the OOCL Rauma also lost seven containers on the same route. A parliamentary majority is calling for a ban on using the southern route in stormy weather, in order to better protect the Wadden area against such disasters.

Right to intervene

According to Minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen (Infrastructure and Water Management), the Netherlands is not in a position to decide something like this in light of the International Convention on Maritime Law. Only on the basis of a well-founded request can the International Maritime Organization (IMO) decide to take such a measure. This procedure can take years.

Soons said that Van Nieuwenhuizen is right when it comes to permanent measures. ‘It’s international law, and you can’t unilaterally take permanent measures. But there is a temporary solution for incidental cases.’

According to the Professor, the Netherlands could make use of its right to intervene (interventiebevoegdheid) laid down in the Maritime Accident Response Act. ‘When a ship under a foreign flag constitutes an immediate and imminent serious danger to the environment of the coastal state, the coastal state can make use of its power of intervention, not only in territorial areas but also beyond.’

Not used

Willy Dekker, Director of Sea and Delta at Rijkswaterstaat, indicated during the meeting that the Ministry is aware of this ‘incidental emergency provision’. She indicated that the measure has not yet been deployed. Not even if ships ignore the Coast Guard’s advice not to sail along the southern route.

Since October, the Coastguard has been advising ships longer than three hundred metres and wider than forty metres to take the northern route at wind force five and wave heights from five metres. This was in response to a warning from the Dutch Safety Board that large ships sailing the southern route could hit the seabed due to the tide, waves and wind.

Since the Coastguard warned ships, there have been four captains who ignored the advice and continued along the southern route. In that case, according to Director Jan van Santen, the Coast Guard has no instrument to act.

This article first appeared (in Dutch) on Nieuwsblad Transport, a sister publication of SWZ|Maritime.

Picture by the Netherlands Coastguard.