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Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Rotterdam’s double-dozen

The news that Sweden has become the 24th country to sign the Rotterdam Rules may have escaped the notice of anybody with a life. In signing, Sweden joins the likes of Armenia and Mali, as well as some others whose names end in a vowel, or possibly a vole.

How singular, though, to learn that the United States has also signed the Rotterdam Rules. The USA does not do what others do, especially in shipping, even though it does end in a vowel. But we must not confuse signing with ratification. Anybody can sign a piece of paper. Bringing legislation into force is another matter entirely.

So, what are the arguments in favour of the Rotterdam Rules? Firstly, they are better than the Hamburg Rules. This is using the word ‘argument’ in its very weakest sense. It is also using the word 'favour' in its very weakest sense. Not even the architects of the Hamburg Rules would argue for their ratification, which these days is championed only by Fifth World mannequins.

Secondly – there is no secondly. As a general rule, it is best to ignore rules which are named after places. This applies especially to Visby, which was home to King Eric of Pomerania and not much else. The Rotterdam Rules are no better than they should be. Carriers like them, and shippers don’t.

The full name of the Rotterdam Rules is the United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Carriage of Goods Wholly or Partly by Sea, a title so pedantic that you fear for its future. One can sum up the Rotterdam Rules by saying that they favour Switzerland and lawyers, and especially Swiss lawyers. In many ways, they take us back to the Hague Rules of 1924.

From this we can deduce that there has never been any need to change the rules covering the international carriage of goods by sea under bills of lading, or – more likely – that the imperative for change always comes from the most severely disadvantaged party to the venture at the time of agitating for a shake-up.

Given the cyclical nature of shipping, this is simply another reason to leave well enough alone.

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