WCO demands repeal of new U.S. port cargo security law

BRUSSELS, Belgium -World customs authorities asked the United States on Tuesday to repeal a new law that will force 100 percent screening of U.S.-bound maritime container cargo from ports around the world.

The World Customs Organization and various port authorities will be unable to provide the new equipment and staff needed to scan all containers bound for the U.S. by the law's July 1, 2012, deadline, said Michel Danet, secretary general of the WCO. The Brussels-based organization represents 173 customs authorities worldwide.

"We are trying to come up with arguments to convince the U.S. Congress to repeal or change the law," Danet told reporters.

The U.S. rules affect the movement of 325 million containers from 600 port container terminals worldwide per year.

The U.S. Congress passed the strict new anti-terror port security rules last July after a special commission recommended tighter border security measures following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

The World Customs Organization released a study during a two-day conference on container security which concluded that the U.S. law would cost millions to implement and cause massive logistical problems for ports and damage world trade.

The world's top ports are unlikely to meet the 100 percent scanning rate by 2012, said Frederic Carluer, a professor from Le Havre University in France, who carried out the WCO study.

"If this law goes ahead in 2012, this would entail a financial cost ... an immediate slowdown in the economy," Carluer said.

He said that some larger and newer ports such as those in the Gulf states or China could cope with implementing new scanning machines or paying for them, but that smaller and older ones could neither afford the technology or produce enough staff to conduct a full screening of all ship-bound cargo to the United States.

Carluer suggested that the law be scrapped, delayed in implementation, or changed to lower the scanning threshold to at least 30 percent and to build up from there.

He said the 100 percent screening rule would cost US$100 (?64) per container, a cost that would likely have to be paid by consumers, raising the prices of imported goods such as toys, televisions and clothing.

The total cost customs and ports spend now per year on partial, selective screening containers would rise from the current US$400 million (?258 million) to US$1 billion (?640 million) by 2012, Carluer said.

"There is a lot at stake for customs authorities around the world," he said.

Carluer said U.S. authorities also could face reciprocity demands from Asian countries and the European Union, that all sea-bound cargo face similar screening before leaving the United States.

The EU's Taxation Commissioner Laszlo Kovacs has criticized the new U.S. law, saying it would raises costs of European exporters and has suggested the measure could be used to give U.S. exporters a leg up on competitors.

Instead of scanning 100 percent of cargo containers, Kovacs advocated basing checks of containers on the potential risks of each one involved, saying this struck a balance between security and making trade easier.