International Maritime Organization (IMO) is a specialised agency of the United Nations dealing with maritime affairs , the main concern of which was to evolve international maritime structure to improve safety at sea. Because of the international nature of the shipping industry, it had long been recognised that action to improve safety in maritime operations would be more effective if carried out at an international level rather than by individual countries acting unilaterally and without coordination with others. Although a number of important international agreements had already been adopted, many States believed that there was a need for a permanent body, which would be able to co-ordinate and promote further measures on a more regular basis.
IMO is the global standard-setting authority for the safety, security and environmental performance of international shipping. Its main role is to create a regulatory framework for the shipping industry that is fair and effective, universally adopted and universally implemented.
IMO measures cover all aspects of international shipping – including ship design, construction, equipment, manning, operation and disposal – to ensure that this vital sector for remains safe, environmentally sound, energy efficient and secure. The world relies on a safe, secure and efficient international shipping industry – and this is provided by the regulatory framework developed and maintained by IMO.
Several countries proposed that a permanent international body should be established to promote maritime safety more effectively, but it was not until the establishment of the United Nations itself that these hopes were realized. In 1948 an international conference in Geneva adopted a convention formally establishing IMO (the original name was the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization, or IMCO, but the name was changed in 1982 to IMO) as the first ever-international body devoted exclusively to maritime matters. In the 10-year period between the adoption of the Convention and its entry into force in 1958, other problems related to safety but requiring slightly different emphasis had attracted international attention. One of the most important of these was the threat of marine pollution from ships, particularly pollution by oil carried in tankers. An international convention on this subject was actually adopted in 1954, four years before IMO came into existence and responsibility for administering and promoting it was assumed by IMO in January 1959. From the very beginning, the improvement of maritime safety and the prevention of marine pollution have been IMO’s most important objectives.
The purposes of the Organization, as summarized by Article 1(a) of the Convention, are:
to provide machinery for cooperation among Governments in the field of governmental regulation and practices relating to technical matters of all kinds affecting shipping engaged in international trade
to encourage and facilitate the general adoption of the highest practicable standards in matters concerning maritime safety, efficiency of navigation and prevention and control of marine pollution from ships”.
The Organization is also empowered to deal with administrative and legal matters related to these purposes.
Timeline of Adaptations (includes four pillars of IMO)
1960: International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the most important of all treaties dealing with maritime safety. This was achieved in 1960 and IMO then turned its attention to such matters as the facilitation of international maritime traffic, load lines and the carriage of dangerous goods, while the system of measuring the tonnage of ships was revised. [Pillar 1]
1969 and 1971: Providing compensation to those who had suffered financially as a result of pollution. Two treaties were adopted, in 1969 and 1971, which enabled victims of oil pollution to obtain compensation much more simply and quickly than had been possible before. Both treaties were amended in 1992, and again in 2000, to increase the limits of compensation payable to victims of pollution. A number of other legal conventions have been developed since, most of which concern liability and compensation issues.
1997: The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers entered into force on 1 Feb 1997 (1995 amendments). They greatly improve seafarer standards and, for the first time, give IMO itself powers to check Government actions with Parties required to submit information to IMO regarding their compliance with the Convention. [Pillar 3]
1998: International Safety Management Code entered into force on 1 July 1998 and became applicable to passenger ships, oil and chemical tankers, bulk carriers, gas carriers and cargo high speed craft of 500 gross tonnage and above. It became applicable to other cargo ships and mobile offshore drilling units of 500 gross tonnage and above from 1 July 2002.
2000: Anti-fouling sytems (AFS 2001) adapted.
2004: Ballast water management to prevent the invasion of alien species (BWM 2004) and another on ship recycling (Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, 2009).
2005: IMO adopted amendments to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts (SUA) Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, 1988 and its related Protocol (the 2005 SUA Protocols), which amongst other things, introduce the right of a a State Party desires to board a ship flying the flag of another State Party when the requesting Party has reasonable grounds to suspect that the ship or a person on board the ship is, has been, or is about to be involved in, the commission of an offence under the Convention.
2010: Revision of the STCW Convention and Code was completed in 2010 with the adoption of the “Manila amendments to the STCW Convention and Code”.
2013: The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) is an International Labour Organization convention established in 2006 as the fourth pillar of international maritime law. The convention entered into force on 20 August 2013, one year after registering 30 ratifications of countries representing over 33 per cent of the world gross tonnage of ships. [Pillar 4]
IMO currently has 172 Member States and three Associate Members as of 2017.
Structure of IMO
The IMO consists of an Assembly, a Council and five main Committees: the Maritime Safety Committee; the Marine Environment Protection Committee; the Legal Committee; the Technical Co-operation Committee and the Facilitation Committee. A number of Sub-Committees support the work of the main technical committees.
This is the most elevated Governing Body of the Organization. It comprises of all Member States and it meets once like clockwork in Two-Yearly customary sessions, however may likewise meet in an uncommon session if important. The Assembly is in charge of supporting the work program, financial arrangements and voting the budgetary courses of action of the Organization. The Assembly additionally chooses the Council.
The Council is chosen by the Assembly for two-year terms starting after every consistent session of the Assembly.
The Council is the Executive Organ of IMO and is responsible, under the Assembly, to supervise the work of the Organization. Between sessions of the Assembly the Council plays out all the functions of Assembly, with the exception of the capacity of making suggestions to Governments on maritime security and pollution prevention which is held for the Assembly.
Functions of Council:
- coordinate the exercises of the organs of the Organization
- consider the draft work program and spending budget evaluations of the Organization and submit them to the Assembly
- receive reports and proposition of the Committees and different organs and submit them to the Assembly and Member States, with remarks and suggestions as proper
- appoint the Secretary-General, subject to the approval of the Assembly
- enter into agreements or game plans concerning the relationship of the Organization with different associations, subject to endorsement by the Assembly.
Council members for the 2016-2017 biennium (Source: IMO.org)
- Category (a): 10 States with the largest interest in providing international shipping services: China, Greece, Italy, Japan, Norway, Panama, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, United States.
- Category (b): 10 other States with the largest interest in international seaborne trade: Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, India, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden.
- Category (c): 20 States not elected under (a) or (b) above which have special interests in maritime transport or navigation, and whose election to the Council will ensure the representation of all major geographic areas of the world: Australia, Bahamas, Belgium, Chile, Cyprus, Denmark, Egypt, Indonesia, Kenya, Liberia, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey.
IMO is a technical organisation and most of its work is carried out on a number of committees and sub-committees. The Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) is the most senior of these. It has a number of sub-committees whose titles indicate the subjects they deal with:
- Safety of Navigation (NAV);
- Radio communications and Search and Rescue (COMSAR);
- Training and Watchkeeping (STW);
- Carriage of Dangerous Goods, Solid Cargoes and Containers (DSC);
- Ship Design and Equipment (DE);
- Fire Protection (FP);
- Stability and Load Lines and Fishing Vessel Safety (SLF);
- Flag State Implementation (FSI);
- Bulk Liquids and Gases (BLG).
Maritime Safety Committee (MSC)
The MSC is the highest technical body of the Organization. It consists of all Member States.
The functions of the Maritime Safety Committee are:
- Consider any matter within the scope of the Organization concerned with aids to navigation, construction and equipment of vessels.
- Manning from a safety standpoint.
- Rules for the prevention of collisions.
- Handling of dangerous cargoes.
- Maritime safety procedures and requirements.
- Hydrographic information, log-books and navigational records.
- Marine casualty investigations.
- Salvage and rescue.
- Any other matters directly affecting maritime safety.
The Committee is also required to provide machinery for performing any duties assigned to it by the IMO Convention or any duty within its cope of work which may be assigned to it by or under any international instrument and accepted by the Organization. It also has the responsibility for considering and submitting recommendations and guidelines on safety for possible adoption by the Assembly.
Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC)
MPEC was established by the Assembly in November 1973. It is responsible for co-ordinating the Organisation’s activities in the prevention and control of pollution of the marine environment from ships. The FSI and BLG Sub-Committees are also sub-committees of the MEPC. In particular it is concerned with the adoption and amendment of conventions and other regulations and measures to ensure their enforcement.
The MSC and MEPC are assisted in their work by a number of sub-committees which are also open to all Member States:
- Sub-Committee on Human Element, Training and Watchkeeping (HTW);
- Sub-Committee on Implementation of IMO Instruments (III);
- Sub-Committee on Navigation, Communications and Search and Rescue (NCSR);
- Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR);
- Sub-Committee on Ship Design and Construction (SDC);
- Sub-Committee on Ship Systems and Equipment (SSE); and
- Sub-Committee on Carriage of Cargoes and Containers (CCC).
The Legal Committee is empowered to deal with any legal matters within the scope of the Organization. The Committee consists of all Member States of IMO. It was originally established to deal with the legal problems arising from the Torrey Canyon accident of 1967, but it was subsequently made a permanent committee. It is responsible for considering any legal matters within the scope of the Organisation.
Technical Cooperation Committee
The Technical Cooperation Committee is required to consider any matter within the scope of the Organization concerned with the implementation of technical cooperation projects and any other matters related to the Organization’s activities in the technical cooperation field.
The Technical Cooperation Committee consists of all Member States of IMO, was established in 1969 as a subsidiary body of the Council, and was institutionalized by means of an amendment to the IMO Convention which entered into force in 1984.
The Facilitation Committee was established as a subsidiary body of the Council in May 1972, and became fully institutionalised in December 2008 as a result of an amendment to the IMO Convention. It consists of all the Member States of the Organization and deals with IMO’s work in eliminating unnecessary formalities and “red tape” in international shipping by implementing all aspects of the Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic 1965 and any matter within the scope of the Organization concerned with the facilitation of international maritime traffic. In particular in recent years the Committee’s work, in accordance with the wishes of the Assembly, has been to ensure that the right balance is struck between maritime security and the facilitation of international maritime trade.
The Secretariat of IMO consists of the Secretary-General and some 300 international personnel based at the headquarters of the Organization in London. As of 2017, the Secretary-General of the Organization is Mr. Kitack Lim (Republic of Korea) who was appointed to the position with effect from 1 January 2016, for an initial four-year term.
IMO has now five regional coordinators/advisors for technical cooperation activities, in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Philippines and Trinidad and Tobago.
Contributions to the IMO budget are based on a formula which is different from that used in other United Nations agencies: the amount paid by each Member State depends primarily on the tonnage of its merchant fleet. The current leader is Panama , followed by Liberia and Marshall Islands.
What does it do?
In order to achieve its objectives, IMO has, in the last 35 years, promoted the adoption of some 40 conventions and protocols and adopted well over 700 codes and recommendations concerning maritime safety, the prevention of pollution and related matters.
The initial work on a convention is normally done by a committee or sub-committee; a draft instrument is then produced which is submitted to a conference to which delegations from all States within the United Nations system – including States which may not be IMO Members -are invited. The conference adopts a final text, which is submitted to Governments for ratification.
An instrument so adopted comes into force after fulfilling certain requirements, which always include ratification by a specified number of countries. Generally speaking, the more important the convention the more stringent is the requirements for entry into force. Implementation of the requirements of a convention is mandatory on countries, which are parties to it. Codes and recommendations, which are adopted by the IMO Assembly, are not binding on Governments; however, their contents can be just as important, and in most cases, they are implemented by Governments through incorporation into domestic legislation.
Below are the major categories which are implemented by IMO
1. Safety – SOLAS
2. Preventing pollution – providing compensation
4. IMO’s codes & recommendations
In addition to conventions and other formal treaty instruments, IMO has adopted several hundred recommendations dealing with a wide range of subjects.
Some of these constitute codes, guidelines or recommended practices on important matters not considered suitable for regulation by formal treaty instruments. Although recommendations -whether in the form of codes or otherwise – are not usually binding on Governments, they provide guidance in framing national regulations and requirements. Many Governments do in fact apply the provisions of the recommendations by incorporating them, in whole or in part, into national legislation or regulations. In some cases, important codes have been made mandatory by including appropriate references in a convention.
These recommendations are generally intended to supplement or assist the implementation of the relevant provisions of the conventions and, in some cases, the principal codes, guidelines, etc.
In appropriate cases, the recommendations may incorporate further requirements, which have been found to be useful or necessary in the light of experience gained in the application of the previous provisions. In other cases, the recommendations clarify various questions, which arise in connection with specific measures and thereby ensure their uniform interpretation and application in all countries.
Examples of the principal recommendations, codes, etc., adopted over the years are:
- International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code) (first adopted in 1965);
- Code of Safe Practice for Solid Bulk Cargoes (1965);
- International Code of Signals (IMO took over responsibility for the Code in 1965);
- Code for the Construction and Equipment of Ships Carrying Dangerous Chemicals in Bulk (1971);
- Code of Safe Practice for Ships Carrying Timber Deck Cargoes (1973);
- Code of Safety for Fishermen and Fishing Vessels (1974);
- Code for the Construction and Equipment of Ships Carrying Liquefied Gases in Bulk (1975); Code of Safety for Dynamically Supported Craft (1977);
- Code for the Construction and Equipment of Mobile Offshore Drilling Units (1979);
- Code on Noise Levels on Board Ships (1981);
- Code of Safety for Nuclear Merchant Ships (1981);
- Code of Safety for Special Purpose Ships (1983);
- International Gas Carrier Code (1983);
- International Bulk Chemicals Code (1983);
- Code of Safety for Diving Systems (1983);
- International Code for the Safe Carriage of Grain in Bulk (1991);
- International Safety Management Code (1993);
- International Code of Safety for High-Speed Craft (1994);
Other important recommendations have dealt with such matters as traffic separation schemes (which separate ships moving in opposite directions by creating a central prohibited area); the adoption of technical manuals such as the Standard Marine Navigational Vocabulary, the IMO Search and Rescue Manual and the IMO Manual on Oil Pollution; crew training; performance standards for shipborne equipment; and many other matters. There are also guidelines to help the implementation of particular conventions and instruments.
The provisions of recommendations are sometimes incorporated into amendments to the relevant conventions. Recommendations enable provisions or requirements to be suggested relatively quickly to Governments for consideration and action. It is also easier for Governments to act on such matters than in respect of provisions in formal treaty instruments, which involve international legal obligations.
Dumping at sea
In addition to other aspects of marine pollution prevention, IMO also carries out Secretariat functions in connection with the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter. This Convention, now called the London Convention, was adopted in 1972 at a conference held under the auspices of the United Kingdom. It entered into force in 1975.
The Convention controls and regulates on a global level the disposal at sea of wastes and other material of any kind (including ships and platforms). The disposal of certain substances which from the environmental point of view are known to be particularly harmful (such as organ halogen compounds, mercury, cadmium, plastics, mineral oils and radioactive wastes) is prohibited.
The Convention also contains specific regulations concerning the dumping of several other materials, which may present a risk to the marine environment and human health. In addition, it bans the incineration of wastes on board ships.
How does it work?
The International Maritime Organisation works through a number of specialist committees and sub-committees. All these bodies are composed of representatives of Member States who discharge their functions with the assistance and advice of appropriate bodies of the United Nations or the specialised agencies, as well as international governmental and non-governmental organisations with which formal relationships have been established.
Formal arrangements for co-operation have been established with more than 30 intergovernmental organisations, while nearly 50 non-governmental, international organisations have been granted consultative status to participate in the work of various bodies in an observer capacity. These organisations represent a wide spectrum of maritime, legal and environmental interests and they contribute to the work of the various organs and committees through the provision of information, documentation and expert advice. However, none of these organisations has a vote.
How does IMO implement legislation?
The Organization itself has no powers to enforce conventions. Therefore, IMO does not implement any Conventions. The enforcement of IMO convention depends upon the Governments of Member Parties. Contracting Governments enforce the provisions of the IMO conventions as far as their own ships are concerned and also set the penalties for infringements, where these are applicable. They may also have certain limited powers in respect of the ships of other Governments.
In some conventions, certificates are required to be carried onboard ship to show that they have been inspected and have met required standards. These certificates are normally accepted as a proof by authorities from other States. When an offence occurs in international waters, the responsibility for imposing a penalty rests with the flag State.
Should an offence occur within the jurisdiction of another State, however, that State can either cause proceedings to be taken in accordance with its own law or give details of the offence to the flag State so that the latter can take appropriate action.
Under the terms of the 1969 Convention Relating to Intervention on the High Seas, Contracting States are empowered to act against ships of other countries that have been involved in an accident or have been damaged on the high seas if there is a grave risk of oil pollution occurring as a result that would reach their waters.
The way in which these powers may be used arc very carefully defined, and in most conventions the flag State is primarily responsible for enforcing conventions as far as its own ships and their personnel are concerned.
Over the years, IMO has continually evolved to meet changing conditions and requirements. In its early days, it concentrated on formulating international conventions and codes. Today, however, IMO is just as concerned to ensure that the conventions, codes and other instruments already adopted are effectively enforced and implemented.
There is significant evidence that IMO measures have already proved beneficial in many areas. Oil pollution of the sea, for example, is less of a threat now than it was 30 years ago and the number of collisions between ships has been greatly reduced in areas where IMO-approved traffic separation schemes have been introduced.
But because of economic factors, the average age of the world’s ships has risen steadily over the same period and statistics show that old ships have more accidents than young ones. The fleets of the traditional maritime countries – which tend to have good safety records – have declined, while many of the flags that are growing most rapidly have relatively poor records. As a result, nobody can afford to be complacent and IMO is concentrating not only on better implementation but also on improving such factors as management and training. All the evidence shows that most accidents happen because people do not obey the regulations, not because the regulations are themselves defective.
Questions and Answers
Q. What are IMO’s Chief instruments?
A. (1) Conventions (2) Protocols (3) Recommendations, Codes and Guidelines (4) Resolutions
Q. What is a Protocol, e.g. the MARPOL Protocol of 1978?
A. A treaty instrument which makes major modifications to a Convention which has been adopted but is not yet in force. The Protocol usually speeds up the Convention’s entry into force.
Q. What are Recommendations?
A. Non-mandatory IMO instruments providing more specific guidelines than conventions or protocols. They must be agreed at IMO by adoption of a Resolution but are not subject to ratification. They provide guidance in framing national regulations and requirements. Some IMO Recommendations are in the form of
Codes, Guidelines or Recommended Practices on important matters not considered suitable.
Q. What is a Resolution?
A. The final document resulting from the agreement by the IMO Assembly or a main committee (e. g. MSC or MEPC) of some matter such as an Amendment or Recommendation.
Q. What is a Party State?
A. A country which has ratified or accepted an IMO instrument. Not all Member states are Party states to all instruments.
Q. How are the requirements of International Maritime Conventions such as SOLAS and MARPOL given legal effect?
A. Domestic merchant shipping legislation is passed by the Part State to implement the convention’s requirements. Eg. The UK’s LSA Regulations and Dangerous Goods and Marine Pollutants Regulations implement parts of SOLAS, while the Prevention of Oil Pollution Regulations implement most of MARPOL Annex I.
Q. How does IMO Convention enter into force?
A. Usually a specified number of months (e.g. 12 months) after the date on which at least a number of States with merchant fleets forming not less than a specified percentage go the world fleet of vessels of 100GT and over have become Parties to it. The method of acceptance is called explicit acceptance.
Q. How can an IMO Convention be amended?
A. Either by explicit acceptance of the proposed amendments by a specified number of States with a specified percentage of world gross tonnage, or by tacit acceptance.
Q. What is tacit acceptance?
A. Entry into force of the amendments within a specified time unless objections are recieved by IMO from a specified number of states.
Q. Can all IMO conventions be amended by the tacit acceptance procedure?
A. No. Tacit acceptance cannot be used for amending SOLAS or LOADLINE in respect of surveys and certification requirements. For this reason it was necessary to introduce two Protocols, to SOLAS and LOADLINE respectively, to introduce harmonised surveys and certification. MARPOL can, however, be amended by tacit acceptance.
Q. How does IMO try to avoid the possibility of misunderstanding of the text of convention regulations?
A. By the use of ‘unified interpretations’ which are printed alongside the regulation text.
Q. What are the differences between ratification and accession in relation to IMO instruments?
A. Ratification is required by a specified number of IMO Member States in order to bring an IMO instrument (such as a Convention) into force. Any Member State wishing to approve, accept and implement the instrument after its entry into force, can only accede to it. This is done by depositing a document of accession with the Secretary General.
Q. Must a Party State to an IMO instrument (e. g. SOLAS) comply exactly with the instrument?
A. No. Any Party State may make a Declaration, Reservation or Statement to the effect that it will not be bound by some part of it or other. These Declarations, Reservations and Statements are attached to the official text of the instrument when it is published, e. g. in the MARPOL book.
Q. How are IMO Conventions enforced?
A. By (1) Flag State Control; and (2) Port State Control.