The Trench


Italy to the rescue

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Reuters reported two days ago that Italy has agreed to provide a port to enable the safe transfer of Syria’s priority 1 chemicals from the Danish and Norwegian ships arriving from the Syrian port of Latakia to the US vessel Cape Ray for hydrolysis and neutralisation, most likely in international waters.
Speculation about the proposed port arises now. Italian officials have thus far refused to identify it. According to the daily Corriere della Sera, as cited by The Voice of Russia, the chemicals will be kept in one of the Italian ports until the transfer to the Cape Ray. It cited an unnamed source in the Italian Ministry of Defence, who suggested that the harbour might be in Sicily or Sardinia. Both islands have cargo ports. However, with the exception of the container and oil terminals in Cagliari in the south, those on Sardinia appear small and mainly offer connections to southern France and northwest Italy. Sicily has some larger commercial harbours, particularly the ones of Augusta on the east coast and Pozallo on the southern tip. However, the Foreign Ministry source in the Reuters report stated that the chemicals would not touch Italian territory at any point.

The ‘free port’ concept

The only way that I can reconcile the latter point with the general idea of Italy’s offer is the concept of a ‘free economic zone’ or a ‘free port’. These are areas with less stringent customs regulations and virtually no oversight from public authorities on transshipments. From the perspective of the Chemical Weapons Convention, free economic zones and free ports pose implementation challenges as a state party might not be able to certify the total absence of illicit transactions there. Furthermore, they contribute to discrepancies between the amounts of chemicals declared by exporting states parties and the amounts declared by the recipient states parties in respect of the same shipments. Free ports also raise some hurdles with regard to the Proliferation Security Initiative.
I, of course, do not know the exact words used in the interview for the Reuters article. The term ‘territory’ may cause some confusion. In the legal sense it covers not just land, but also territorial waters and the airspace above Italy. Whichever port the Scandinavian ships may call at, they would have to travel through Italian territorial waters. However, if ‘territory’ were to mean ‘soil’ or ‘land’ in the sense that the goods would be transferred from ship to ship without first being brought onto Italian soil, then perhaps ‘terreno’ rather than ‘territorio’ might have been used. ‘Territorio’, however, also translates as ‘jurisdiction’, which opens an interesting channel for speculation.

Trieste comes into view

Trieste’s harbour has several free port areas exempt even from European Union regulations. They include zone for mineral oils and an industrial one. I would not be surprised if they can handle industrial toxic substances. Its description on the internet by the port authority contains the following interesting passages (emphases added):

The Free Port of Trieste is political territory of the Italian State. Italian and European Union laws cannot, however, restrict the freedoms relating to customs duties and operations guaranteed by the Peace Treaty and its instruments of implementation. The legal status of the Free Port of Trieste is essentially embodied in two regimes: unrestricted access and transit and customs clearance exemption.
With regard to unrestricted access to the port, Annex VIII establishes free movement of goods and services and freedom of access and of transit without any discrimination and without customs duties or charges other than those levied for services rendered (see articles 1, 5, 10, 16 of Annex VIII; articles 2, 3, 6 and 7 of Commissarial Decree 29/1955; articles 6 and 7 of Commissarial Decree 53/1959). […]

  •  non-discriminatory right of entry of ships and cargo, irrespective of their destination, origin and nature, with the possibility of staying there for an indefinite period, free of duty, taxes or other charges other than those levied for services rendered, with no need for authorisation for loading, unloading, transhipment, movement and storage, and with no obligation to identify a customs destination for such cargo, which can be decided by the operator at a later date
  • prohibition on customs intervention (and thus customs control of goods entering and leaving the Free Zones, which takes place only at the free-zone crossing points) when loading and unloading goods, except for specific exceptions under economic, health and public safety regulations (some goods, such as those under monopolies, weapons, drugs, pocketable items, must be placed in special warehouses supervised by Customs). Community goods are treated as leaving customs territory when they cross into the Free Zones, with the entry of EU goods into the Trieste Free Zones representing an export transaction not subject to VAT.


In sum, the Trieste port has the capacity and is used to working with large volumes of interesting goods, all the while a government official can claim that it does not control what comes into the port.
Still, this is pure speculation on my part, but admittedly an interesting option to entertain.

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