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      The flag of a ship has, from earliest days, provided an indication of that vessel’s nationality – the country under which it derived its legal status and whose laws applied to its operations. It was, in practical terms, necessary to fly a flag which was a visible indication of the state under whose protection that ship operated, backed up with the papers which would be carried by the Master. And as international trade developed in the Middle Ages, protection was important as warring nations and city states built naval forces to establish their writ at sea and control seas they claimed as their own.

The earliest examples of what have become known as "open registers" or "flags of convenience" stem from the Classical period when Roman and Greek ships used the flags of the other country to secure trading advantages. In the Middle Ages, ships trading in areas far from their homes might arrange to fly the flag of the "controlling" state so to gain its protection and cargo rights. There were examples of British-owned merchant ships trading in the Mediterranean flying the flag of Venice or Genoa, also of ships with papers of more than one state on board to insure themselves against capture.
      Port state oversight
      Flag states are provided with extensive powers of oversight and control of the safety of ships flying their flags, with specific obligations for the inspection of their ships, jurisdiction and administration of the owning entities, the Master and officers and crew of the ship. They are required to provide "their" ships with appropriate certificates that demonstrate that the ship has been inspected and complied with international rules and standards. The SOLAS and MARPOL Conventions are highly detailed documents which do not permit flag states much "wriggle room" for interpretation

The flag state is also firmly in control of criminal and disciplinary powers with the duty to enforce penal jurisdiction where there have been breaches of regulations that have led to incidents such as collision, stranding or pollution. In such cases, it is required to respond to reports of violations involving ships flying its flags, institute proceedings and to inform the informing state of its action. Similarly, the Law of the Sea Convention, IMO conventions and ILO instruments all make the flag state responsible for inquiries into the circumstances surrounding casualties, which importantly are obligations and not "options", that may or may not, be exercised.

This panoply of responsibilities and obligations laid down by international law and conventions ought, in a perfect world, to ensure that there is an effective global regime that exercises adequate controls on maritime standards. It was accidents which resulted in terrible pollution which inexorably drove the move towards strengthened port state action. The incapability of such flag states, together with the difficulty of ascribing liabilities to a single-ship company registered in an unhelpful state, convinced coastal states that there was a need for a means of protecting themselves and their citizens against the dangers represented by substandard ships. Port state powers were to become a final safety net, should all the other measures to enforce standards fail.

There were, not surprisingly, considerable worries in the industry about the emergence of a "patchwork" of port state controls in which an internationally trading ship would be faced with different rules in every port it arrived at. Such fears were behind the establishment of the Paris MOU, which endeavoured to ensure that the same rules applied in the ports of all subscribing members, and the Tokyo MOU was quick to follow suit. The IMO has been keen to see other regional MOUs rolled out around the world, and has used its influence, and its facilities for offering technical assistance to encourage this. Port state control may not be entirely uniform in scope or thoroughness, but the bones of a workable system are in place.