The International Maritime Organization (IMO)

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The seven seas, accounting for about two-thirds of the earth's surface, are the only truly international part of our globe. Except for a marginal belt a very few miles wide, touching on the shores of countries, the greater part of the world's oceans and maritime resources are the common property of all nations. Since ancient times, however, "freedom of the seas" has too often been a theoretical ideal rather than a reality. In each historic era, the great maritime powers tended to use their naval might to dominate the sea. Some of those powers, while serving their own interests, served the world as a whole, as in the great explorations of unknown continents. Many sought to use the waters for purely national interests, particularly in matters affecting straits and other narrow waterways. Private shipping interests, often supported by their national governments, have been even more competitive, and international cooperation in maritime matters has been very limited.

The need for an international organization to develop and coordinate international maritime cooperation was expressed by President Woodrow Wilson, who called for "universal association of the nations to maintain the inviolate security of the highway of the seas for the common and unhindered use of all the nations of the world." However, it was not until after the creation of the UN that such an organization came into being.


The convention establishing the International Maritime Organization (originally called the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization) was drawn up in 1948 by the UN Maritime Conference in Geneva, but it was 10 years before the convention went into effect. The conference decided that the IMO's success depended on participation by most of the nations with large merchant navies, and it specified that the organization would come into being only when 21 states, including seven having at least 1 million gross tons of shipping each, had become parties to the convention. On 17 March 1958, the convention went into effect. The first IMO Assembly met in London in January 1959. The relationship of the IMO to the UN as a specialized agency was approved by the UN General Assembly on 18 November 1958 and by the IMO Assembly on 13 January 1959.


The purposes of the IMO, as set forth in the convention, are the following:

  • to facilitate cooperation among governments on technical matters of all kinds affecting shipping engaged in international trade;
  • to encourage the general adoption of the highest practicable standards in matters concerning maritime safety, efficiency of navigation, and the prevention and control of marine pollution;
  • to encourage the removal of discriminatory action and unnecessary restrictions by governments engaged in international trade, so as to promote the availability of shipping services to world commerce without discrimination;
  • to consider matters concerning unfair restrictive practices by shipping concerns; and
  • to consider any matters concerning shipping that may be referred to the IMO by any UN organ or specialized agency.


Any state invited to the 1948 Maritime Conference or any member of the UN may become a member of the IMO by accepting the 1948 convention. Any other state whose application is approved by two-thirds of the IMO membership becomes a member by accepting the convention. If an IMO member responsible for the international relations of a territory (or group of territories) declares the convention to be applicable to that territory, the territory may become an associate member of the IMO. As of 30 August 2005 there were 166 IMO members and three associate members.


The IMO's structure comprises the Assembly, the Council, the Maritime Safety Committee, the Marine Environment Protection Committee, the Legal Committee, the Technical Cooperation Committee, and the secretariat, headed by a Secretary-General.


The governing body of the IMO is the Assembly, composed of all IMO members. The Assembly determines the work program and votes on the budget to which all members contribute. It meets once every two years in regular sessions, but may also meet in extraordinary session if necessary.


Between sessions of the Assembly, the Council performs all functions of the organization except that of recommending the adoption of maritime safety regulations, a prerogative of the Maritime Safety Committee. The Council also has an important policymaking role. Draft s of international instruments and formal recommendations must be approved by the Council before they can be submitted to the Assembly.

The Council is made up of 40 members elected by the Assembly for two-year terms: ten members represent states with the largest international shipping services; ten represent states with the largest international sea borne trade; and 20 represent states, not elected under the foregoing categories, that have special interests in maritime transport or navigation and whose presence in the Council will ensure representation of the world's major geographic areas. The Council normally meets twice a year. The members of the Council for 2006-07 were: (from the first category) China, Greece, Italy, Japan, Norway, Panama, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, United States; (from the second category) Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, India, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden; and (from the last category) Algeria, Australia, Bahamas, Belgium, Chile, Cyprus, Denmark, Egypt, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Philippines, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand, and Turkey.


The Maritime Safety Committee is made up of all IMO member states. Its work is carried out mainly through nine sub-committees working in the following areas: bulk liquids and gases; carriage of dangerous goods, solid cargoes and containers; fire protection; radiocommunication and search and rescue; safety of navigation; ship design and equipment; stability and load lines and fishing vessels safety; standards of training and watch-keeping; flag state implementation.

The Marine Environment Protection Committee is responsible for all matters relating to the prevention and control of marine pollution from ships.

The Legal Committee, established in the aftermath of the Torrey Canyon disaster of 1967 to deal with the legal problems arising from that incident, is responsible for any legal matter within the scope of the IMO.

The Technical Cooperation Committee coordinates the work of the IMO in providing technical assistance in the maritime field, especially to developing countries.

The Facilitation Committee is a subsidiary body of the Council. It was established in May 1972 and deals with IMO's work in eliminating unnecessary formalities and "red tape" in international shipping.

Secretary-General and Secretariat

The secretariat consists of a Secretary-General, appointed by the Council with the approval of the Assembly, and an international staff of about 300. IMO headquarters are at 4 Albert Embankment, London, England, UK, SE1, 7SR.

The Secretary-General since 2004 is Efthimios E. Mitropoulos of Greece. He heads a staff of approximately 300.


The IMO Assembly approved a budget of £49,730,300 for the 200607 biennium. Contributions to the IMO budget are based on a formula that is different from that used in other agencies. The amount paid by each member state depends primarily on the tonnage of its merchant fleet. In 2006 the top ten contributors to the IMO budget (and the percentage of the total budget) were Panama, 18.47%; Liberia, 7.72%; Bahamas, 5.03%; United Kingdom, 4.64%; Greece, 4.34%; Singapore, 4.02%; Japan, 3.76%; Marshall Islands, 3.58%; United States, 3.44%; and China, 3.34%.


The IMO's general functions, as stipulated in its convention, are "consultative and advisory." It thus serves as a forum where members can consult and exchange information on maritime matters. It discusses and makes recommendations on any maritime question submitted by member states or by other bodies of the UN and advises other international bodies, including the UN itself, on maritime matters. Various other intergovernmental agencies deal with specialized maritime matters, such as atomic propulsion for ships (IAEA), health at sea (WHO), maritime labor standards (ILO), meteorology (WMO), oceanography (UNESCO), and ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications (ITU). One of the functions of the IMO is to help coordinate the work in these different fields.

The IMO is also authorized to convene international conferences when necessary and to draft international maritime conventions or agreements for adoption by governments. These conferences, and the conventions resulting from them, have been mainly concerned with two subjects of primary concern to the IMO: safety at sea and the prevention of marine pollution.

A. Safety at Sea

A conference convened by the IMO in 1960 adopted the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) to replace an earlier (1948) instrument. The convention covered a wide range of measures designed to improve the safety of shipping, including subdivision and stability; machinery and electrical installations; fire protection, detection, and extinction; lifesaving appliances; radiotelegraphy and radiotelephony; safety of navigation; carriage of grain; carriage of dangerous goods; and nuclear ships. A new convention, incorporating amendments to the 1960 agreement, was adopted in 1974 and entered into force in 1980. The SOLAS convention was updated with the SOLAS Protocol of 1978, which entered into force in 1981, and with the SOLAS Protocol of 1988, which entered into force in February 2000. In December 2002, amendments were adopted related to maritime security, which were scheduled to enter into force in July 2004.

In 1966, an IMO conference adopted the International Convention on Load Lines (LL), which sets limitations on the draught to which a ship may be loaded, an important consideration in its safety. The convention was updated by the LL Protocol of 1988, which entered into force in February 2000. The 1969 International Convention on Tonnage Measurement of Ships is designed to establish a uniform system for tonnage measurement.

Two conventions were adopted in 1972, following IMO conferences: the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, which concerns traffic separation

AlbaniaEl SalvadorLiberiaSan Marino
AlgeriaEquatorial GuineaLibyan Arab JamahiriyaSão Tomé and Príncipe
AngolaEritreaLithuaniaSaudi Arabia
Antigua and BarbudaEstoniaLuxembourgSenegal
ArgentinaEthiopiaMadagascarSerbia and Montenegro
AustriaFinlandMalaysiaSierra Leone
BahrainGambiaMarshall IslandsSlovenia
BangladeshGeorgiaMauritaniaSolomon Islands
BelgiumGhanaMexicoSouth Africa
BelizeGreeceMoldova (Republic of)Spain
BeninGrenadaMonacoSri Lanka
Bosnia and HerzegovinaGuineaMoroccoSuriname
Brunei DarussalamGuyanaMyanmarSwitzerland
BulgariaHaitiNamibiaSyrian Arab Republic
CameroonHungaryNetherlandsThe Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedoni
CanadaIcelandNew Zealand
Cape VerdeIndiaNicaraguaTimor-Leste
ChinaIran, Islamic Republic ofNorwayTonga
ColombiaIraqOmanTrinidad and Tobago
Comoros IslandsIrelandPakistanTunisia
Congo, Republic ofIsraelPanamaTurkey
Congo, Democratic Republic of theItalyPapua New GuineaTurkmenistan
Costa RicaJamaicaParaguayTuvalu
Côte d'IvoireJapanPeruUkraine
CroatiaJordanPhilippinesUnited Arab Emirates
CubaKazakhstanPolandUnited Kingdom
CyprusKenyaPortugalUnited Republic of Tanzania
Czech RepublicKiribatiQatarUnited States
DenmarkKorea, Democratic People's Republic ofRomaniaUruguay
DjiboutiRussian FederationVanuatu
DominicaKorea, Republic ofSt. Kitts and NevisVenezuela
Dominican RepublicKuwaitSt. LuciaVietnam
EcuadorLatviaSt. Vincent and the GrenadinesYemen

schemes; and the Convention for Safe Containers, which provides uniform international regulations for maintaining a high level of safety in the carriage of containers by providing generally acceptable test procedures and related strength requirements.

The International Convention on the International Maritime Satellite Organization, adopted in 1976, concerns the use of space satellites for improved communication, enabling distress messages to be conveyed much more effectively than by conventional radio.

Three additional conventions concern safety at sea: the 1977 Torremolinos Convention for the Safety of Fishing Vessels, which applies to new fishing vessels of 24 m (79 ft) in length or longer; the 1978 Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watch-keeping for Seafarers, which aims to establish internationally acceptable minimum standards for crews; and the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, which is designed to improve existing arrangements for carrying out search and rescue operations following accidents at sea.

In September 1994, a roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) automobile ferry the Estonia capsized and quickly sank, killing over 900 people. Following the disaster, the IMO Maritime Safety Committee made major changes to the safety standards of ro-ro passenger ships, including amendments to the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.

B. Prevention of Marine Pollution

The 1954 Oil Pollution Convention, for which the IMO became depositary in 1959, was the first major attempt by the maritime nations to curb the impact of oil pollution. Following a conference convened by the IMO, the 1954 convention was amended in 1962, but it was the wreck of the oil tanker Torrey Canyon in March 1967 that fully alerted the world to the great dangers that the transport of oil posed to the marine environment. In 1969, two new conventions were adopted: the Convention on Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties, which gives states the right to intervene in incidents on the high seas that are likely to result in oil pollution; and the Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage, which is intended to ensure that adequate compensation is available to victims and which places the liability for the damage on the shipowner.

Two years later, a conference convened by the IMO led to the adoption of the Convention for the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage. The fund, with headquarters in London, is made up of contributions from oil importers. If an accident at sea results in pollution damage which exceeds the compensation available under the Civil Liability Convention, the fund is made available to pay an additional amount.

These three conventions all deal with the legal aspects of oil pollution, but the continuing boom in the transportation of oil showed that more work needed to be done on the technical side as well. The problem of oil pollutionnot only as a result of accidents but also through normal tanker operations, especially the cleaning of cargo tankswas so great in some areas that there was serious concern for the marine environment.

In 1973, a major conference was convened by the IMO to discuss the whole problem of marine pollution from ships. The result of the conference was the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, which deals not only with oil but also with other sources of pollution, including garbage, sewage, and chemicals. The convention greatly reduces the amount of oil that can be discharged into the sea by ships and bans such discharges completely in certain areas, such as the Black Sea and the Red Sea. It gives statutory support for such operational procedures as "load on top," which greatly reduces the amount of mixtures to be disposed of after tank cleaning, and for segregated ballast tanks.

A series of tanker accidents that occurred in the winter of 1976/77 led to demands for further action and to the convening of the Conference on Tanker Safety and Pollution Prevention in 1978. The most important measures adopted by the conference were incorporated in protocols to the 1974 Convention on Safety of Life at Sea and the 1973 Marine Pollution Convention.

The protocol to the 1973 convention strengthened the provisions regarding oil pollution and at the same time was modified to incorporate the parent convention. It was amended in 1984, and further amendments were made in 1985 to Annex II, which deals with pollution by noxious liquid substances carried in bulk.

In 1989, a conference of leading industrial nations in Paris called upon IMO to develop further measures to prevent oil pollution from ships. In 1990 IMO adopted the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation (OPRC). The convention provides a global framework for international cooperation in combating major incidents or threats of marine pollutions. Parties to the convention will be required to establish measures for dealing with pollution incidents and ships and operators of offshore oil units will be required to have oil pollution emergency plans. The convention also calls for the establishment of stockpiles of oil spill-combating equipment, the holding of oil spill-combating exercises, and the development of detailed plans for dealing with pollution incidents. It entered into force in May 1995.

In addition, through its Maritime Environment Protection Committee, the IMO has been working on various other projects designed to reduce the threat of oil pollutionfor example, the Regional Oil-Combating Center, established in Malta in 1976 in conjunction with UNEP. The Mediterranean is particularly vulnerable to pollution, and a massive oil pollution incident there could be catastrophic. The center's purpose is to coordinate anti-pollution activities in the region and to help develop contingency plans that could be put into effect should a disaster occur. The IMO has also taken part in projects in other regions, including the Caribbean and West Africa.

C. Other Maritime Questions

In 1965, the IMO adopted the Convention on Facilitation of Maritime Traffic, the primary objectives of which are to prevent unnecessary delays in maritime traffic, to aid in cooperation between states, and to secure the highest practicable degree of uniformity in formalities and procedures.

In association with the IAEA and the European Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD, the IMO convened a conference in 1971, which adopted the Convention on Civil Liability in the Field of Maritime Carriage of Nuclear Matter.

The Convention on Carriage of Passengers and Their Luggage, adopted in 1974, establishes a regime of liability for damage suffered by passengers carried on seagoing vessels. It declares the carrier liable for damage or loss suffered by passengers if the incident is due to the fault or neglect of the carrier. The limit of liability was originally set at us$ 55,000 per carriage, but on 1 November 2002, a new protocol was adopted by the IMO, which would substantially raise that liability limit, to approximately us$ 325,000. It was due to enter into force 12 months after being accepted by 10 states.

Another convention on liability, the 1976 Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims, covers two types of claims: claims arising from loss of life or personal injury and claims arising from damage to ships, harbor works, or other property. To further clarify liability issues, in 1996 the IMO adopted the International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in connection with the Carriage of Hazardous and Noxious Substances by Sea (called the HNS Convention); as of 1 May 2006, it had not entered into force.

In addition to such conventions, whose requirements are mandatory for nations that ratify them, IMO has produced numerous codes, recommendations, and other instruments dealing with maritime questions. These do not have the legal power of conventions but can be used by governments as a basis for domestic legislation and for guidance. Some of the recommendations deal with bulk cargoes, safety of fishermen and fishing vessels, liquefied gases, dangerous goods, timber deck cargoes, mobile offshore drilling units, noise levels on ships, and nuclear merchant ships.

Certain codes dealing with the transport of bulk chemicals and liquefied gas, have been made mandatory through amendments to the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea.

In 1988, IMO adopted the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, which entered into force in 1992. The main purpose of the convention is to ensure that appropriate action is taken against persons committing unlawful acts against ships and fixed platforms engaged in the exploitation of offshore oil and gas.

The International Convention on Salvage was adopted in 1989, and entered into force in July 1996. The convention is intended to replace an instrument adopted in Brussels in 1910. That convention incorporated the "no cure, no pay" principle that has been in existence for many years and is the basis of most salvage operations today. However, it did not take compensation into account. The new convention seeks to remedy this by making provisions for "special compensation" to be paid to salvers when there is a threat to the environment.

D. Technical Assistance and Training

While the adoption of conventions, codes, and recommendations has been the IMO's most important function, in recent years the agency has devoted increasing attention to securing the effective implementation of these measures throughout the world. As a result, the IMO's technical assistance activities have become more important, and in 1975 it established the Technical Cooperation Committee. The purpose of the technical assistance program is to help states, many of them developing countries, to ratify IMO conventions and to reach the standards contained in the conventions and other instruments.

Advisors and consultants employed by the IMO, in the field and at headquarters, deal with such matters as maritime safety administration, maritime legislation, marine pollution, training for deck and engineering personnel, the technical aspects of ports, and the carriage of dangerous goods.

Through its technical assistance program, the IMO is able to offer advice in these and other areas and to assist in the acquisition of equipment and the provision of fellowships. IMO relies almost exclusively on extra-budgetary sources for financing the International Technical Cooperation Program (TCP) and in the 1990s funding became a serious problem, in particular since the strategic reorientation of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), traditionally the core provider of TCP funding. For example, in 1990 approximately us$ 5.6 million was received from UNDP; by 1997 this support had dwindled to us$ 3.93 million. In 2000, IMO's funding partners for the TCP included international funding agencies, regional development banks, donor countries, recipient countries, the private sector (shipping and port industries), non-Governmental organizations involved in maritime and port activities, and individuals.

The World Maritime University, in Malmö, Sweden, which was established under the auspices of the IMO and opened in 1983, provides advanced training for more than 100 maritime personnel annuallysenior maritime teachers, surveyors, inspectors, technical managers, and administrators from developing countries. Funded by UNDP and by Sweden and other countries, the university offers two-year courses in maritime education and training, maritime safety administration, general maritime administration, and technical management of shipping companies, as well as field and other training. It is designed to help meet the urgent need of developing countries for high-level maritime personnel and to contribute to maintaining international standards for maritime safety and preventing pollution of the seas by ships. The university serves as the apex of an international system of training in the maritime field, collaborating with regional, subregional, and national maritime training institutions throughout the world. By 2002 the university had produced more than 1,400 graduates from over 130 countries.

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The International Maritime Organization (IMO)

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The International Maritime Organization (IMO)