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World Maritime Rescue Congress

Keynote address

August 25, 2011

World Maritime Rescue Congress
Shanghai, China
24 – 28 August 2011
Keynote address by E.E. Mitropoulos, Secretary-General, IMO
 
Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Minister and Vice Minister for Transport, Mayor and Vice Mayor of Shanghai, Chairman and members of the IMRF, President of the ISU, Director General of the China Rescue and Salvage, Lord Boyce, distinguished guests, media representatives, Ladies and gentlemen,
 
Let me begin by thanking IMRF for inviting me once again to attend your quadrennial meeting. I am grateful for the opportunity not only to participate in your deliberations – something, which, following my attendance of your congresses in La Coruña, Bournemouth, Cape Town and Gothenburg, I always relish – but also to offer my congratulations in person to your host member organization, China Rescue and Salvage, on the occasion of its 60th anniversary – which, by sheer coincidence (!...) falls today.
 
IMRF seems to be establishing something of a tradition in convening their Congress to coincide with the host’s birthday. Can it really be four years since we met in Gothenburg and celebrated the Swedish Sea Rescue Society’s centenary?  Since then, billions of tons of water have flowed under the bridge and much has been achieved in the Federation and IMO’s life.
 
Visiting, once again, China, gives me also the opportunity to pay tribute to the country’s major achievements in the maritime sector and thank its Government – in particular, the Ministry of Transport – for its contribution to the work of IMO, which is much appreciated.
 
At the time of the Gothenburg gathering, IMRF was emerging from a period of re-invention, completing its transformation from the International Lifeboat Federation to the International Maritime Rescue Federation. This, I think, has been a most appropriate move, reflecting, as it does, the much broader sweep of assets, techniques and disciplines that your membership embraces in delivering its maritime rescue mandate.
 
Even today, when all the advances in shipbuilding and marine technology and in the development of high training and qualification standards for seafarers have made ships safer than ever before, seafaring is still a challenging and, sometimes, hazardous occupation. However much we try to guard against them, accidents can, and do, occasionally happen and, when they do, the sea can suddenly become a very lonely, isolated, dangerous and, at times, deadly workplace.
 
That is why comprehensive, effective and worldwide provision of state-of-the-art maritime search and rescue services, utilizing properly designed and equipped lifeboats and attendant gadgets, entrusted to the hands of adequately educated and trained professionals, has long been an important objective for the entire maritime community and, in particular, for IMO, as the United Nations agency with prime responsibility for the safety of life at sea.
 
And, although many traditional maritime countries had in place a decent SAR infrastructure, it was eventually IMO, who enshrined, in its conventions, the obligation for all coastal States to provide an adequate search and rescue capability. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, for example, requires contracting Governments “to ensure that necessary arrangements are made for distress communication and coordination in their area of responsibility and for the rescue of persons in distress at sea around its coasts”.  Such arrangements are required to include the establishment, operation and maintenance of such search and rescue facilities as are deemed practicable and necessary.
 
This fundamentally humanitarian obligation is backed up by the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, concluded at the end of an IMO Conference convened in Hamburg in 1979, which requires that contracting Governments “ensure that assistance be provided to any person in distress at sea…”.
 
Moreover, while not an IMO Convention, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea imposes an obligation on every coastal State Party to “promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate and effective search and rescue service regarding safety on, and over, the sea and, where circumstances so require, by way of mutual regional arrangements co-operate with neighbouring States for this purpose”.
 
As ever, of course, the devil lies in the detail; and it is in the detail that IMRF has been actively and fruitfully engaged since its inception and, more particular, since the Gothenburg Congress.  Let me refer to just a few of the issues that you have since been addressing, because these represent your principal areas of concern and will form essential threads in your discussions here in China.
 
First, the operation of search and rescue craft: it seems that, almost inevitably, search and rescue assets are called upon to operate when conditions are at their harshest. It might be the weather, it might be the state of the sea, it might be the proximity of wreckage or flames, or it might just be the severe mental of strain of knowing that human lives depend on the mission at hand. Whatever the reason, search and rescue craft are invariably operated under pressure. And that is why IMRF’s work to develop a draft code of practice for the operation of search and rescue craft, drawing on the extensive and varied experiences of your member organizations from all around the world, is so vitally important.
 
This topic will form one of the main strands of discussion at this Congress providing the essential feedback that will inform and shape the continuing development work into the next quadrennial period for your organization. I am gratified that your intention is to bring this work, once complete, to IMO, and I have every confidence that the Organization will, in turn, find your input a valuable contribution to its own efforts to enhance the safety of life at sea further.
 
A second major plank of your work that dovetails fully with IMO’s own concerns is your very active programme to address problems associated with large-scale rescue operations. There can be no question that the huge passenger ships (both cruise ships and ferries) that have been built in recent years, each capable of carrying passengers and crews in their thousands, present unique challenges from so many perspectives – search and rescue not least among them. The prospect of literally thousands of people in the water, all needing to be rescued, is enough to fill anyone with dread.  But I am convinced that the more we prepare ourselves in advance to face, from all possible aspects (not solely from the evacuation and rescue points of view) any relevant emergency situation, the more, and better, we will be able to keep such a nightmare scenario at bay.  In the meantime, concerns of that sort have been identified by the passenger ship working groups established by our Sub-Committees on Radiocommunications and Search and Rescue and Ship Design and Equipment, under the direction and guidance of the Maritime Safety Committee.
 
In March of this year, the COMSAR Sub-Committee received a report on the major outcomes of the conference you held on this subject last year – in Gothenburg, once again.  Your well-written submission represented a significant stepping-stone in this important process and was well received by the Sub-Committee.
 
The fact that you will continue with those considerations during this meeting is very encouraging, as is the fact that you are contemplating to hold another specialized conference next year to take this topic forward once again.
 
During the same time, IMO will continue, in co-operation with affected countries and on a regional basis, work on the unacceptably high number of lives lost every year among persons fleeing famine or political unrest-struck countries, who use sub-standard ships to carry them away in search of a better life.  During the first seven months of this year alone, there have been over 51.000 such fellow human beings arriving in Italy from Libya and Tunisia, with more than 1.500 persons reported dead, missing or unaccounted for – compared with 48.800 refugees arriving in Yemen from Ethiopia and Somalia with 122 lives reported lost in the process.
 
The plight of these persons, meeting a premature death under tragic conditions on overcrowded ships of dubious safety, sometimes in sight of the promised land, constitutes a stigma for the civilization of the 21st century – along with the stigma of innocent seafarers falling in the hands of, and held in captivity for months on end by, pirates operating off the coast of Somalia.  Our thoughts and prayers are with the 425 seafarers from 20 ships currently held hostage in Somalia.  May they be released and returned unharmed to their families soon.
 
In the overall context of rescue at sea, it has not escaped you that next year marks the 100th anniversary of a milestone in maritime history, which has become famous for all the wrong reasons – the Titanic disaster, in which 1,503 people, tragically, lost their lives. Nor, indeed, has it escaped IMO. Earlier this year, the IMO Council endorsed my proposal to adopt “IMO: One hundred years after the Titanic” as the World Maritime Day theme for 2012.
 
One of the consequences of the sinking, on the maiden voyage of that much-advertised transatlantic liner, in 1912, was the adoption, two years later, of the first SOLAS Convention, the 1914 version of which was gradually superseded by those adopted in 1929, 1948, 1960 (the first under the auspices of IMO, then known as IMCO) and 1974 – the one still in force today, albeit amended and updated many times.
 
The selection of the IMO theme chosen for next year will provide us with an opportunity to:
 
• take stock of improvements in maritime safety during the 100 years since the sinking of that ill-fated ship;

• pay tribute to the memory of those who lost their lives in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic on that fatal night of 14 April 1912;

• highlight that the sacrifice of the many passengers and crew of the Titanic has not gone in vain;

• examine whether the lessons drawn from amongst the most costly (in human lives lost) accidents of the last 100 years, have been learnt to the full;

• analyze the safety record of shipping and identify those areas that have contributed the most to its improvement over the years;

• identify the most contributory factors (systems, concepts, mechanisms, etc) in the quest for ever-enhanced safety in shipping;

• examine which areas, within the overall spectrum of maritime safety (constructional, operational, cargo, human element, etc.), should be given priority consideration in the years to come; and

• pay tribute to all those who, in the course of the 100 years since the Titanic went down, have contributed to improvements in maritime safety.
 
I have no doubt that all of these points will have a strong resonance within the IMRF, just as I feel sure you will appreciate that the theme will focus on our over-riding, shared objective, which is none else that the safety of life at sea.
 
Which brings me directly to the third, and perhaps most challenging of the topics I should like to highlight among those you will be addressing at your Congress.  Although excellent advances have been made with regard to the provision of search and rescue services, both in the open seas and along the coastlines of developed countries, the situation with regard to several developing countries leaves much to be desired and, as such, requires a great deal of attention. Far too many lives are lost among coastal communities in such countries that rely on the sea for their livelihoods or for domestic transportation, yet which lack the basic essentials to provide levels of maritime safety that would be considered adequate elsewhere.
 
This is a subject that maintains, for a long time, a prominent place on IMO’s agenda and which has provided an arena for close collaboration between IMO and IMRF.  I refer, in particular, to IMRF’s assistance, through the generous support of its member organizations, to IMO initiatives to develop regional search and rescue systems and services in several developing countries.  To be more specific, IMRF has lent valuable, and much appreciated, support to the development of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Mombasa and the sub-centre in Dar-es-Salaam, as well as assisting a number of communities to establish rudimentary water safety and emergency response capabilities.
 
In this context you will, no doubt, share my satisfaction that, with the recent establishment in March of the Rabat MRCC in Morocco, and following those previously established by IMO in Mombasa, Cape Town, Lagos and Monrovia, a complete network of such centres and sub-centres now exists to support SAR operations off the coast of Africa.
 
This has completed a process, which dates back to the October 2000 Conference on Search and Rescue and the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, which was convened by IMO in Florence, Italy. The Conference recommended a regional approach to the provision of search and rescue services in eastern, western and southern parts of Africa in countries selected for their strategic location.
 
One of the resolutions adopted by the Florence Conference invited the African countries bordering the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, from Morocco to Somalia, anti-clockwise, as well as the nearby Atlantic and Indian Ocean island States, to establish five sub-regional centres and 26 sub-centres to cover their entire coastline areas for search and rescue coordination purposes. The Conference envisaged that, in this manner, all the proposed centres could work co-operatively to provide search and rescue coverage in what had previously been identified as one of the areas of the world suffering most from a lack of adequate SAR and GMDSS infrastructure.
 
Completion of the Florence-inspired process represents not only a major step forward for the countries concerned, but also for the entire Africa; for the maritime and shipping world as a whole; and for the international community of seafarers, who would feel confident that, should they find themselves in distress while sailing off the coast of Africa, their calls for assistance will not be left unattended.
 
Establishing a worldwide network of rescue centres is nothing short of a major humanitarian undertaking and achievement and all those who have been involved in turning the dream of the Florence Conference into reality – including IMRF – deserve great credit for such an important accomplishment.
 
Having progressed the African project to a satisfactory degree, we must now turn our attention to other areas in the world, which would equally benefit from a similar approach. To this effect, we are placing the focus on the coastlines of central America and the Caribbean, envisaging two regional MRCCs (one on the Pacific Ocean coast and another on the Caribbean Sea) and five sub-centres.  I trust that IMRF’s engagement in these new endeavours will be as strong as ever.
 
While speaking of MRCCs, you will be pleased to know of the recognition that is to be conferred on the MRCCs at Falmouth in the United Kingdom and at Stavanger in Norway. Both are to be presented with special Certificates of Commendation as part of  IMO’s annual bravery award celebrations, for their contribution, on several occasions, to search and rescue operations unfolding in distant areas, far away from their respective countries’ SAR regions, and for their dedicated performance over many years. Not only is this recognition thoroughly deserved in its own right, it is also my hope that, honouring them in this way, will act as a spur for other MRCCs to follow their good example.
 
And still on the Exceptional Bravery Awards institution that IMO inaugurated in 2005, I wish to take the opportunity to thank those of the participating IMRF members, who have nominated candidates several of which have been honoured, one way or another, for their valiant acts in rescuing persons in distress at sea.  And also thank IMRF for participating in the Panel of Assessors, which advises the IMO Council on which nominees to receive awards.
 
Looking ahead, there are already on the horizon many challenges the search and rescue community will have to deal with. The expansion of shipping in Arctic waters, and the Arctic SAR agreement signed in May this year by the circumpolar nations; the tidal waves of migrants that, as I mentioned earlier on, take to the sea in often unsuitable craft in search of a better life; and the economic cutbacks in countries all over the world, which have affected the provision of coastguard services, for example – these are the developments that will shape your world while contemplating your way forward. Whether or not they form part of your formal proceedings this week, they cannot be ignored as you look to the future while taking stock of recent developments in the design and equipment of lifeboats and all the other tools you use at sea and ashore to perform your duties.
 
But you draw on nearly 90 years of achievement since your foundation in 1924 as the International Lifeboat Federation, and your member organizations have worked in unity to overcome many common difficulties, openly sharing their ideas, developments and experiences for the benefit of all. Indeed, much of the life-saving technology in common use today is as a direct result of this international co-operation. I have no doubt, therefore, that you will tackle the new and emerging issues, and any related challenges that may come your way in the future, with due diligence and expertise and the determination required to succeed, always recalling that maritime search and rescue is an essential humanitarian mission and that those unfortunate enough to be in distress at sea rely on people like you to provide an immediate and effective emergency response.  Your services, and those of ships in the vicinity of others requiring assistance, constitute the last hope of fellow human beings caught up in a distress situation – and we do not have the right to deprive them of that last hope. 
 
Ladies and gentlemen, I wish you every success with your deliberations during this Congress.  Search and rescue has always been a subject close to my heart and, having played a modest role in the development of the global SAR Plan, I feel elated to be among you today and am thankful for the opportunity to participate in your meeting.  Also to bid you farewell, for, as you know, I am due to take leave from my Office at the end of the year.  During my time of service at IMO and my attendance of meetings such as this, in La Coruña, Bournemouth, Cape Town, Gothenburg and elsewhere, I have come to know you and the determination, firmness and solidarity with which you proceed in the pursuit of your objectives.  It only, therefore, remains for me to thank you most sincerely for your support, co-operation and friendship over a long and, I would dare say, fruitful period in the service of shipping and those who go down to sea in ships.  Your altruistic efforts – in the execution of which several of your members have paid the ultimate price – are most commendable and I salute you for that.
 
Thank you.
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