updated 5/15/2009 4:20:52 PM ET 2009-05-15T20:20:52

Sixty-three governments approved a U.N. convention Friday that aims to make the business of scrapping the world's freighters, luxury liners and oil tankers safer and greener by requiring higher standards at recycling yards mostly located in South Asia.

But critics led by a coalition of 107 environmental and rights groups complained the International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships doesn't go far enough. They want governments to ban the practice of breaking down ships along beaches and require ship owners to remove all hazardous materials before sending them for recycling.

An estimated 1,000 ships are broken down each year, mostly in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and to a lesser degree in China and Turkey.

Sending the ships to the developing world saves the industry money but exposes an army of poorly trained workers to deadly hazards. Dozens die each year in explosions and accidents while others are sickened later in life after coming in contact with asbestos and other substances.

The pact drafted by the International Maritime Organization will go into force two years after 15 countries — representing 40 percentage of world merchant shipping by gross tonnage — formally ratify it.

The 63 countries including those with ship recycling industries agreed to limit the amounts of hazardous materials that ships are built with and require older ships to be broken down in yards that meet certain environmental standards.

The convention also requires recycling facilities to institute measures that reduce explosions and other accidents and ensure that workers are properly trained and provided with safety equipment such as gloves, goggles and face masks.

"This significant international convention provides a single regulatory platform needed to address safety, health and environmental issues in the disposal of end-of-life ships," said Eva Cheng, Hong Kong's secretary for transport and housing. "It will help protect the health of workers in recycling yards, reduce damage to the environment and be instrumental to the sustainable development of the shipping industry worldwide."

But the coalition of environmental groups, the NGO Platform on Shipbreaking, said the pact would "perpetuate hazardous and polluting shipbreaking on the beaches of the world's poorest countries, while obstructing transitions to safer and greener forms of ship recycling."

The convention "won't stop a single toxic ship from being broken on the beach of a developing country," Ingvild Jenssen, the coalition's director, said in a statement. "The convention legitimizes the infamous breaking yards of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh."

The pact follows a series of incidents involving toxic-laden ships that forced the hand of the industry. Pressure has also been increasing from many European nations to clean up the recycling trade.

The French aircraft carrier Clemenceau was originally set to be dismantled in India, but revelations that it contained asbestos sparked protests by environmental groups there. As a result, it traveled to Britain in February where it is being broken down at a yard specializing in hazardous materials.

The European Union has called for better procedures and checks on ships sent to South Asian yards in the wake of the Clemenceau incident and expectations that as many as 800 single-hulled tankers in Europe will be phased out by 2015 in favor of safer, double-hulled ships.

Asian courts, too, have stepped in. They're requiring shipyards in Bangladesh and India to clean up their acts or face closure. Indian yards have implemented tougher environmental standards following orders from the country's Supreme Court, while a court ruling requiring all yards in Bangladesh to obtain environmental clearance has been appealed.

For supporters of the convention, the pact shows the industry is heeding calls for change.

Critics, however, say it contains no effective measures to enforce standards and does not provide any financial assistance for cash-strapped governments to upgrade facilities.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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