The expansive and efficient nature of shipping benefits many different countries at once, and shipping regulation is needed to ensure that international standards are accepted and adopted. Among those regulations is maritime safety, brought to prominence after the Titanic disaster of 1912. This incident spawned the first international Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) convention, which remains the most important treaty.

About the IMO 

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) was first established in 1959 and since then, it has committed to developing and maintaining a comprehensive regulatory framework for shipping. Today, this framework includes safety, environmental concerns, legal matters, technical cooperation, maritime security and the efficiency of shipping. 

Our society is supported by a global economy that is reliant upon shipping. IMO plays a key role in ensuring that lives at sea are not put at risk and that the marine environment is not polluted by shipping as identified in IMO’s mission statement: Safe, Secure and Efficient Shipping on Clean Oceans.

The IMO has an international staff of about 300 people based in London, UK. As a specialized agency of the United Nations, its committees and subcommittees focus on updating, developing and adopting new regulations. Meeting attendees include experts from Member governments and those from interested intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. 

Together, this comprehensive body of international conventions governs every facet of shipping including:  

With the intention of preventing accidents, added measures include:

  • Ship design standards
  • Construction
  • Equipment
  • Operation
  • Manning

Key treaties include:

  • MARPOL Convention – The prevention of pollution by ships
  • STCW – Convention on standards of training for seafarers

Other measures recognize that accidents do happen and these conventions include rules concerning distress and safety communications:

  • The International Convention on Search and Rescue
  • International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation 

Conventions that establish compensation and liability regimes include:

  • The International Convention of Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage
  • The International Fund for Compensation for Oil Damage
  • Athens Convention – covering liability and compensation for passengers at sea

While inspection and monitoring of compliance are the responsibility of member States, the addition of a Voluntary IMO Member State Audit Scheme has helped enhance implementation of IMO standards. After the first audits in 2006, the IMO Assembly made this scheme mandatory in 2016. 

IMO’s technical cooperation team identifies needs among resource challenged Members and matches them to assistance such as training and governance. IMO has founded three advanced level maritime educational institutes in Malmö, Malta and Genoa.

IMO Frequently Asked Questions

1. What does IMO do?

When IMO first began operations, the main goal was developing international treaties and other legislations concerning safety and marine pollution prevention. As most of this work was largely complete by the late 1970s, IMO now concentrates on keeping legislation up-to-date and ensuring that it is accepted by as many countries as possible. This has been so successful that many Conventions now apply to more than 98 percent of world merchant shipping tonnage.

The emphasis is now on trying to ensure proper implementation of these conventions and other treaties by the countries that have accepted them. The texts of conventions, codes and other instruments adopted by IMO can be purchased from IMO Publications.

2. Why do we need an International Organization to look after shipping?

Standard safety legislations make for safe and efficient shipping. If each nation developed its own safety legislation, the result would be a lack of consistency in national laws. Some nations might insist on very high safety standards, while others might act as havens for sub-standard shipping.

3. How does IMO implement Legislation?

IMO does not implement legislation–governments do. When a Government accepts an IMO Convention, it agrees to make it a part of its own national law and to enforce it just like any other law.

The most important IMO conventions contain provisions for Governments to inspect foreign ships that visit their ports. If ships do not meet the standards, they can be detained until repairs are carried out. Based on previous experience, this works best if countries join together to form regional Port State Control organizations.

IMO has encouraged this process and agreements have been signed covering: Europe and the north Atlantic (Paris MOU); Asia and the Pacific (Tokyo MOU); Latin America (Acuerdo de Viña del Mar); Caribbean (Caribbean MOU); West and Central Africa (Abuja MOU); the Black Sea region (Black Sea MOU); the Mediterranean (Mediterranean MOU); the Indian Ocean (Indian Ocean MOU) and the Arab States of the Gulf [GCC MoU (Riyadh MoU)].

Signatories to the:

Paris MOU (blue), Tokyo MOU (red), Indian Ocean MOU (green), Mediterranean MOU (dark green), Acuerdo Latino (yellow), Caribbean MOU (olive), Abuja MOU (dark red), Black Sea MOU (cyan), Riyadh MOU (navy).

By developing human resources through maritime training and similar activities, IMO’s extensive technical cooperation concentrates on improving the ability of developing countries to become more self-sustainable.

4. What is the role of Classification Societies?

Issuing a trading certificate is the responsibility of the flag State of the vessel and it grants a ship seaworthiness, type of ship, and suitability for the intended purpose. However, the flag State or “Administration” may “entrust the inspections and surveys either to surveyors nominated for the purpose or to organizations recognized by it” (SOLAS Chapter 1, regulation 6). In practice, these “recognized organizations” are often the Classification Societies.

The International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) is a Non-Governmental Organization that was granted Consultative Status with IMO in 1969.

5. What about pollution?

In 1954, a treaty was adopted to deal with oil pollution from ships. In 1959, IMO assumed responsibility for this treaty, but it was not until 1967 that the shipping world realized just how serious the threat of pollution was when the Torrey Canyon tanker ran aground off the coast of the UK. Since IMO’s adoption of conventions covering prevention of marine pollution by ships, there has been further preparedness and response to incidents involving oil, hazardous and noxious substances. There are more conventions on the prevention of the use of harmful anti-fouling systems, and the international convention on ballast water management aims to prevent the spread of harmful aquatic organisms in ballast water.

Shipping is considered one of the greenest modes of transportation, in terms of energy needed for volume of cargo transported. The IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) deals with all issues relating to marine environment protection as it relates to shipping. This also includes ensuring that shipping does not have a negative environmental impact.

Protecting the environment from shipping is not just about specific regulations preventing ships dumping oil, garbage or sewage. It is also about the improvements in safety from mandatory traffic separation schemes to the International Safety Management (ISM) Code and improving seafarer training, all of which help to prevent accidents occurring.

The preservation of Special Areas and Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas is an important aspect of IMO’s work. IMO adopts these areas so that all Member States have an opportunity to view proposals and discuss any proposed measures to explore the potential impact on the freedom of navigation.

IMO’s Technical Cooperation Program is hugely important in ensuring Member States have the resources and expertise to implement IMO conventions relating to marine pollution prevention. Examples of programs include:

> Sensitivity mapping to identify which parts of a coastline are particularly vulnerable
> Training in oil spill response and contingency planning
> Ballast water management issues
> The Marine Electronic Highway in the Malacca Strait.

6. What about climate change?

IMO is heavily engaged in the fight to protect and preserve our environment – both marine and atmospheric – and is energetically pursuing the limitation and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from shipping operations. The Marine Environment Protection Committee has developed energy efficiency measures, both for existing and new ships, to enable a comprehensive package of technical and operational measures to be agreed.

7. Does IMO have to settle for the lowest common denominator?

As a result of measures adopted by the Organization having such an impact on shipping, IMO tries to act on a consensus basis to achieve as much support as possible. For instance, a treaty supported by only 51 percent of the IMO membership would be opposed by nearly half of the shipping world. This would suggest that the opposing group could go off and adopt an alternative treaty of their own and thus divide the maritime community. This is not to say that the measures are of low standard as the Governments who do join do so because they support the Organization’s aims. Treaties adopted by IMO represent an extremely high standard and acceptability as can be seen by the number of them that are now nearly universal in their coverage. In fact, SOLAS has been accepted by more than 156 countries and covers the majority of the world merchant fleet.

8. How much does IMO cost?

IMO is one of the smallest agencies in the United Nations system, both in terms of staff numbers – only 300 permanent staff – and budget. The total budget for the 2012-2013 biennium is £62,206,200, comprising an appropriation of £30,520,200 for 2012 and an appropriation of £31,686,000 for 2013.

Costs are shared between the 170 Member States primarily in proportion to the size of each one’s fleet of merchant ships. The biggest fleets in the world are currently operated by Panama and Liberia, so they pay the biggest share of IMO’s budget.

9. Should IMO have some sort of police function?

An “IMO” police force would be redundant as the work is already enforced by individual governments. Considering the added expense, there is also no guarantee that a police force would make a significant impact on safety and pollution. However, IMO has the authority to vet the training, examination and certification procedures of Contracting Parties to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), 1978. This was one of the most important changes made in the 1995 amendments to the Convention which entered into force on 1 February 1997. Governments are to provide relevant information to IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee which then judges whether the country in question can meet the requirements of the Convention. The result is a List of Confirmed Parties to STCW.

10. What is the Voluntary IMO Member State Audit Scheme?

IMO has now adopted the Voluntary IMO Member State Audit Scheme. The Audit Scheme is designed to help promote maritime safety and environmental protection by assessing how effectively Member States implement and enforce relevant IMO Convention standards. This is achieved by providing them with feedback and advice on their current performance. The first audits under the Voluntary IMO Member State Audit Scheme were completed at the end of 2006 and it was made mandatory in 2016.

11. Why is IMO so slow?

The main purpose of IMO is to adopt international treaties which are intended to apply to as many ships as possible. There are many variables that impact the timeline of this process such as unanimity, the speed at which governments and IMO act, and it can only be achieved by ensuring that the adopted regulations are widely acceptable.

When there is a timely matter, IMO can act very rapidly as it did with the adoption of added security measures in December 2002 in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

Further, IMO revised the rules on oil tanker single-hull phase-out in December 2003 in response to the Prestige incident of 2002.

In another example following the Estonia disaster of September 1994 where a passenger ro-ro ferry sank with the loss of more than 900 lives, the then Secretary-General of IMO, Mr. William A. O’Neil, called for a complete review of ro-ro safety to be carried out by a special panel of experts. The panel’s report was considered by the Maritime Safety Committee in May 1995 and amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS),1974 were adopted in November. Special requirements concerning the crews of ro-ro passenger ships were included in amendments to the International Convention on Standards of Training, and Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW),1978 that were adopted in July 1995. All of this was completed before the final report into the disaster had been issued.

A further example is provided by the 1995 amendments to the STCW Convention as a whole. Although IMO previously agreed to amend the Convention, the original timetable would have meant that this would not have taken place before 1998 and the amendments themselves would not have entered into force until the next century. In May 1993 the Secretary-General urged the Maritime Safety Committee that this process be accelerated by using special consultants. The Committee agreed and the amendment procedure – which amounted to a complete re-writing of the Convention – was completed by July 1995. As a result, the amendments entered into force in February 1997 – more than a year before the amendment conference would have been held under the original timetable.

IMO has improved its procedures over the years to ensure that changes can be introduced more quickly.

One of the most successful of these has been the process known as “tacit acceptance” which has been included in most technical conventions adopted by IMO since the early 1970s. The normal procedure for adopting amendments to an international treaty is by means of “explicit acceptance.” This means that the amendments enter into force so many months after being accepted by a specified number of Parties to the original Convention. The number can be as high as two-thirds and if the parent convention has been accepted by a large number of countries, it could mean 80 or more of them having to ratify the amendment before it becomes international law. The tacit acceptance procedure means that amendments – which are nearly always adopted unanimously – enter into force on a set date unless they are specifically rejected by a specified number of countries.

Because IMO conferences prioritize unanimity, very few rejections have ever been received and the entry into force period has been steadily reduced. In exceptional cases, amendments can enter into force as little as a year after being adopted. Apart from the speed, tacit acceptance also means that everyone involved knows exactly when amendments will enter into force. Under the old system you never knew until the final acceptance was actually deposited with IMO.

12. Have shipping safety and the marine environment improved because of IMO?

Although we can say yes to this question with some confidence, it is difficult to compare shipping today with that of thirty or forty years ago due to the great changes that have taken place in the industry during that period. In the 1950s, shipping was dominated by a handful of traditional maritime countries. They built the ships, operated them, manned them, and provided the goods that were carried on them. Today most ships fly the flags of developing countries and their crews come from all over the world. Doubts have been expressed about the ability of some of these countries to maintain and operate ships to the high standards laid down in IMO regulations. Ships themselves have also changed dramatically in size, speed and design, and today’s economic factors mean that the average modern ship is much higher than it used to be. Despite these changes, safety standards around the world have improved considerably since the late 1970s when IMO treaties began to enter into force and the number of acceptances rose to record levels.

As far as pollution is concerned, the indications are that there has been a remarkable improvement in the amount of ship-caused pollution. It is generally acknowledged that oil spills from shipping have decreased significantly over the last 30 years. This is partly due to the tightening of controls through IMO conventions such as the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships in 1973 — as modified by the Protocol of 1978 (MARPOL 73/78) — and partly due to the introduction of better methods of controlling waste disposal. According to a study carried out by the United States National Academy of Sciences, oil pollution from ships fell by about 60 percent during the 1980s, coinciding with the entry into force of MARPOL 73/78.

13. What about maritime security?

Maritime security is now an integral part of IMO’s responsibilities. A comprehensive security regime for international shipping entered into force on July 1, 2004.

The mandatory security measures adopted in December 2002 include a number of amendments to the 1974 Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS). The amendment with the biggest reach is the new International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS Code). This contains detailed security-related requirements for Governments, port authorities and shipping companies:

> Improve communications between States
> Enhance the capabilities of States in the region to deter, arrest and prosecute pirates
> Improve States’ maritime situational awareness
> Enhance the capabilities of local coast guards

IMO has also revised the guidance on measures deterring piracy to include region-specific guidance based on industry best management practices.

IMO is also seeking additional support from States able to provide warships and maritime patrol aircraft for the Gulf of Aden and Western Indian Ocean area. The focus is on bringing the recently opened Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres in Mombasa and Dar es Salaam into the counter piracy role.

IMO’s long term goal is to seek and promote international action to stabilize the situation in Somalia through the UN Security Council, the UN Political Office for Somalia, the UN Development Program, the Contact Group of Piracy off Somalia, and others. In the case of the situation off Somalia, developments ashore may be the only way to resolve this problem in the long term.
In the meantime, it is essential to maintain support from States able to provide warships and maritime patrol aircraft until the political situation is resolved.