IMO information

Introduction to International Maritime Organisation

Shipping is perhaps the most international of all the world's great industries and one of the most dangerous. It has always been recognized that the best way of improving safety at sea is by developing international regulations that are followed by all shipping nations and from the mid-19th century onwards a number of such treaties were adopted. 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). The IMO Convention entered into force in 1958 and the new Organization met for the first time the following year.

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.

IMO's first task was to adopt a new version of the 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.

But although safety was and remains IMO's most important responsibility, a new problem began to emerge - pollution. The growth in the amount of oil being transported by sea and in the size of oil tankers was of particular concern and the Torrey Canyon disaster of 1967, in which 120,000 tonnes of oil was spilled, demonstrated the scale of the problem. During the next few years IMO introduced a series of measures designed to prevent tanker accidents and to minimize their consequences. It also tackled the environmental threat caused by routine operations such as the cleaning of oil cargo tanks and the disposal of engine room wastes - in tonnage terms a bigger menace than accidental pollution. The most important of all these measures was the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, as modified by the Protocol of 1978 relating thereto (MARPOL 73/78). It covers not only accidental and operational oil pollution but also pollution by chemicals, goods in packaged form, sewage, garbage and air pollution.

IMO was also given the task of establishing a system for 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. IMO also developed a number of other legal conventions, most of which concern liability and compensation issues.

Shipping, like all of modern life, has seen many technological innovations and changes. Some of these have presented challenges for the Organization and others have presented opportunities. The enormous strides made in communications technology, for example, have made it possible for IMO to introduce major improvements to the maritime distress system.

In the 1970s a global search and rescue system was initiated. The 1970s also saw the establishment of the International Mobile Satellite Organization (IMSO), which has greatly improved the provision of radio and other messages to ships.

In 1992 a further advance was made when the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System began to be phased in. In February 1999, the GMDSS became fully operational, so that now a ship that is in distress anywhere in the world can be virtually guaranteed assistance, even if the ship's crew do not have time to radio for help, as the message will be transmitted automatically.

Other measures introduced by IMO have concerned the safety of containers, bulk cargoes, liquefied gas tankers and other ship types. Special attention has been paid to crew standards, including the adoption of a special convention on standards of training, certification and watchkeeping. The adoption of maritime legislation is still IMO's most important concern. Around 40 conventions and protocols have been adopted by the Organization and most of them have been amended on several occasions to ensure that they are kept up to date with changes taking place in world shipping.

But adopting treaties is not enough - they have to be put into effect. This is the responsibility of Governments and there is no doubt that the way in which this is done varies considerably from country to country.

IMO has introduced measures to improve the way legislation is implemented, by assisting flag States (the countries whose flag a ship flies) and by encouraging the establishment of regional port State control systems. When ships go to foreign ports they can be inspected to ensure that they meet IMO standards. By organizing these inspections on a regional rather than a purely national basis resources can be used more efficiently.

IMO has also developed a technical co-operation programme which is designed to assist Governments which lack the technical knowledge and resources that are needed to operate a shipping industry successfully. The emphasis of this programme is very much on training and perhaps the best example is the World Maritime University in Malmö, Sweden, which was established in 1983 and provides advanced training for the men and women involved in maritime administration, education and management.

Two initiatives in the 1990s are especially important. On 1 July 1998 the International Safety Management Code entered into force 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 not later than 1 July 2002.

On 1 February 1997, the 1995 amendments to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978 entered into force. They greatly improve seafarer standards and, for the first time, give IMO itself powers to check Government actions. It is expected that these two measures, by raising standards of management and shipboard personnel, will greatly improve safety and pollution prevention in the years to come.

The emphasis on the so-called "human element" remains paramount for IMO. Meanwhile, IMO has seen a renewed focus on security issues since the terrorist atrocities in the United States in September 2001.

A new, comprehensive security regime for international shipping is set to enter into force in July 2004 following the adoption by a week-long Diplomatic Conference in December 2002 of a series of measures to strengthen maritime security and prevent and suppress acts of terrorism against shipping. The Conference was of crucial significance not only to the international maritime community but the world community as a whole, given the pivotal role shipping plays in the conduct of world trade.

From the MCA 5/2003