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Japan to offer Mauritius economic support after oil spill

Tokyo ready to contribute to cleanup and recovery despite lack of legal liability

The wreckage of the bulk carrier Wakashio in waters off Mauritius. (Mauritius government via Kyodo)

TOKYO -- Japan's government has begun consideration of economic assistance to Mauritius following an oil spill caused by a Japanese-owned vessel, Nikkei has learned.

The funds, which could come in the form of grants or yen-denominated loans, are intended to help the tourism-dependent island nation recover from the leak of roughly 1,000 tons of fuel from the bulk carrier Wakashio.

While Japan is not liable for the disaster under international law, officials said providing aid to Mauritius would fulfill a moral obligation and minimize any harm to Tokyo's international credibility.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi has talked about cooperating with Mauritius on an "unprecedented scale." He told reporters Tuesday that Japan plans to send an investigation team there this month and that Tokyo will work closely with other countries and organizations involved in restoration efforts.

Oil from the Wakashio, which ran aground on a reef in July, has reached mangrove forests and damaged coral that could take decades to recover. The damage to the Indian Ocean nation's economy is too severe to be fully made up for through payments from the ship owner and insurance payouts.

Under international maritime law, spills of fuel or cargo oil from tankers are covered by a treaty first adopted in 1969 after the massive Torrey Canyon oil spill off the U.K. coast two years earlier. A separate treaty governs liability for spills from other cargo vessels, like the Wakashio.

Both stipulate that ship owners are liable for damage caused by oil spills, except in certain limited circumstances, such as acts of war.

In this case, that is Nagashiki Shipping, which owns the Wakashio. While the ship was chartered by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines at the time, the company is generally considered to have no legal responsibility.

The Mauritian government has said it will seek compensation from Nagashiki and its insurer. International maritime law caps such payments based on ship tonnage, with the limit in this case likely running into the tens of millions of dollars.

Some expect Mauritius to demand more, given the magnitude of the damage to the island nation's economy, though it would need to withdraw from the relevant treaty in order to seek compensation beyond the limit.

There are concerns that should this occur, Nagashiki may not be able to cover the full cost. Possible solutions, such as the government shouldering the burden or providing financial aid to the company, would come with their own complications.

Providing formal compensation "would amount to an acknowledgment of legal responsibility by the Japanese government," a senior Foreign Ministry official said. General aid without an explicit connection to the accident would get around this issue while showing Tokyo's good faith.

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