Gearbulk continuing unethical transport
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Three Norwegian shipping companies have apologized and stopped their operations in occupied Western Sahara. However, the Bergen-owned company Gearbulk continues their controversial transports. Next week, yet another Gearbulk vessel is due to arrive in a New Zealand harbour with phosphates. The Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara argues that the Sahrawi population has suffered a financial loss amounting to 200 million USD, as a result of the shipments of this shipping company alone.

Published 15 June 2008

By Erik Hagen
Norwatch, 12 June 2008
Original in Norwegian here. 

During the spring of 2007 Norwatch revealed that the partially Bergen owned shipping company Gearbulk, is engaged in the transportation of phosphate rock from Western Sahara to New Zealand. Norwatch can also show photos and videos of the vessel's arrival in the Pacific nation.

While other Norway affiliated shipping companies, bring their engagements in Western Sahara to a close, Gearbulk continues in the same waters as before. The company appears to carry out two shipments annually from the occupied country. 

According to the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara, these two shiploads may thereby represent an annual loss amounting to approximately 200 million USD for the Sahrawi people. This trade gives the occupying power in Western Sahara millions of dollars in income. The trade violates International Law, and is also contrary to explicit advice issued by Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Norwatch has asked the Support Committee to clarify why this particular ship-owner should be held responsible for refunding the millions that the Sahrawis have lost on the phosphate trade.

“The New Zealand importer and the Moroccan government owned phosphate company are evidently reaping most of the profit from this trade”, the chairman of the Support Committee, Mr. Ronny Hansen said.

“Even so, a prerequisite for the trade has been an active participation by the Gearbulk. In principle, the middleman is just as guilty as the thief”, Mr Hansen told Norwatch.

“Even if Gearbulk does not succeed in convincing its trading partners to join them in returning the millions, the shipping company should at least have the decency enough to hand over to the Sahrawis the net profit they have earned”, Mr. Hansen underlined to Norwatch.

He furthermore stresses that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees repeatedly appeals to the international community to donate more aid to the Sahrawi refugees in Algeria.

Silent company
Mr. Kristian Jebsen, chairman of Gearbulk, does not want to make any comments regarding the extent of the company’s involvement. He does not want to say how many journeys they have made from Western Sahara, how many tonnes of phosphate they have carried, when the shipments started, and when the delivery contract to New Zealand will expire.

Therefore, Gearbulk has quite a different approach from the other Norwegian-related shipping companies that have been involved in this trade. The other companies that have been caught red-handed since November 2007, are no longer active, and have regretted their involvement. The shipping companies in question are Arnesen Shipbrokers of Farsund, R-Bulk of Bergen and finally, Jinhui Shipping that is listed on Oslo Stock Exchange.

Gearbulk does not want to give their opinion as to the behaviour of the three shipping companies that have expressed regret about their involvement in Western Sahara. Nor does the company want to comment on the support committee’s demands that the Sahrawis should receive compensation for losses suffered as a result of the phosphate transport.

Chairman Jebsen says he does not want to answer any questions related to business or politics. “As a matter of principle we do not want to make comments on these types of questions”, he stated in a written statement addressed to Norwatch.

“Not recommended, but not forbidden”
“We can confirm that Simge Aksoy is chartered by Gearbulk, and that the vessel is on its way from Morocco to New Zealand” Mr Jebsen wrote to Norwatch.

Thus, he has labels the occupied territory as Moroccan.

“Naturally, Gearbulk is very aware that our activity shall be conducted in full accord with applicable laws and regulations, which is also the case in this instance. The British Foreign Office has expressed the view that trading with the occupying authorities in Western Sahara is not advisable. On the other hand there are no legal restrictions intended to limit such trade. For the sake of good order I would like to remind you that our role in this specific case is confined to only carrying out a transportation task on behalf of our charterer in New Zealand”, Mr Jebsen wrote Norwatch.

“It is not natural to consult Norwegian authorities on topics where Norway is not directly involved, for a foreign company with international business, like Gearbulk”, Mr. Jebsen writes.

The Support Committee refers to an incident during 2007, when Gearbulk admitted that Western Sahara trade was not commendable, and means that Gearbulk, by continuing their activities, show a lack of corporate social responsibility. 

“Our experiences from other Norwegian shipping companies, is that they pull out when they realize what the conflict is all about. It is therefore quite striking that Mr Jebsen does the opposite, that he continues the transport in spite of the explicit admission that they are collaborating with an occupier, and that such cooperation is advised against by British as well as Norwegian authorities. Such obvious cynicism is rare in this era of debate on corporate social responsibility”, Hansen explained to Norwatch.

Photo: Brakhage
Translated to English by Western Sahara Resource Watch.

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