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Jan 30, 2009

Colonial law may cripple case against Westerhaven

Story PictureWe report tonight that there is a serious snag in the government’s case against the owners of the Westerhaven and it all has to do with our colonial past. The cargo ship that ran aground on the Reef on January thirteenth has been granted bail, meaning that as soon as its owners are able to come up with six point five million dollars or a security of the same amount as ordered by the Court this week, the vessel will be able to continue on its journey out of Belizean waters. But News Five has learnt that attorneys for G.O.B. were taken aback yesterday by the Belize’s Harbour and Merchant Shipping Act. The Act includes a provision that essentially states that any case that is not covered by this act will then be referred to the Merchant and Shipping Act of 1894 and any amendments to it. The UK Act protects Britain’s shipping industry. A 1976 treaty that was published as part of a 1979 amendment includes the Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime claims. The convention sets a limitation figure to any person or property regarding damages. And how does that apply to the case against Westerhaven? Well possible fines are calculated by the tonnage or weight of the ship, not the amount of damages that it causes. The Westerhaven weighs approximately seven thousand pounds. The 1979 amendment would have made fines less than two million dollars. But an amendment to the 1979 convention, made in 1996 upped the calculation. So now when the case proceeds and if the owners of the Westerhaven are found guilty, they would not be charged more than four point eight million dollars. That figure is a far cry from the twenty-six point nine million US dollars that the Attorney General’s Ministry was seeking in damages on the behalf of the Department of Environment. The argument, however, is being made that Belize did not sign onto the 1979 treaty, it simply inherited it from Britain. A lawyer consulted by News Five says that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can bring up the matter at the next sitting of the House to start the process to remove that amendment from our laws.

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