World Maritime Rescue Congress and 20th International Lifeboat Conference

Address by Efthimios E. Mitropoulos, Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization, Gothenburg, Sweden, 4 June 2007

Mr. Chairman, Mr. President, Minister, Chairman of the IMO Council, distinguished participants and guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to thank you very much for inviting me to be with you today at what I know is something of a landmark for your organization, one which is being celebrated on the historic Gothenburg quayside, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of our hosts, the Swedish Sea Rescue Society. From the outset, I should, therefore, like to offer both your organizations my heartfelt congratulations on your respective milestones and my very best wishes for every success in the pursuit of your noble objectives - the noblest of them all.

I have personally been associated with most of your Conferences since I attended the one held in La Coruña in 1987 and, later on, those that took place in Oslo in 1992 and in Cape Town in 2003. I have, therefore, only words of thanks to say for my good fortune to be with you all along and, thus, follow the tremendous achievements you have made over time.

At the March 2003 Cape Town Conference, you decided to go ahead with a major re-structuring of what was then the International Lifeboat Federation, including its formal incorporation as a charity, operating under the guidance of an appointed Board of Trustees.

Since then, a great deal of work has been done to that effect with the last four years having seen the formulation of a formal constitution, of rules and regulations and of a new membership structure. All this effort will culminate with the election, here in Gothenburg, of the first Trustees under the new constitutional arrangements and the holding of the first General Assembly of the new organization. And, last but not least, this occasion will also mark your formal change of name, from the "International Lifeboat Federation" to the "International Maritime Rescue Federation".

These moves are designed to build upon a long history of many significant achievements, not least of which is your 22 years of active and fruitful participation in the work of IMO as a non-governmental organization in consultative status. You have, I know, submitted a paper to the forthcoming session of the IMO Council, which opens in three weeks time, informing it of your change of status. I am confident that the Council will view positively the re-affirmation of your commitment to supporting the aims and objectives of IMO and to the fulfilment of the goals that I know we share…and I look forward to the Council Chairman, here present, playing a positive role to this effect - as he always does.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my strong belief that the real power of any organization lies in the quality of its people. The organizations that make up the International Maritime Rescue Federation are very special, indeed quite probably unique, in that a huge proportion of the people from whom they derive their strength are volunteers, giving freely of their time, often putting themselves at great personal risk and, occasionally, paying the ultimate price, all in the service of others.

Moreover, many of your member organizations are reliant to a great extent on the generosity of the public at large, through donations and volunteer fundraising, to maintain the vital life-saving services that you provide - services that are, of course, free of charge to those in need.

What makes this magnificent and truly magnanimous ethos even more outstanding is how you have managed, within those constraints, to drive the technical evolution of lifeboats, their operation and their equipment to such a remarkable extent. This Congress and Conference will provide a showcase for the current state-of-the-art in lifeboat technology and it will reveal, once again, what a sophisticated and highly developed piece of kit the modern lifeboat has become.

Your achievements in this respect are born of the understanding that maritime search and rescue is not a competitive business. Your member organizations have all grasped fully the enormous benefits that can accrue from the free exchange of ideas, technologies and experiences, in pursuit of the most noble of humanitarian objectives - saving lives. Not only does this co-operative approach serve to keep down development costs for individual member organizations, it also, more importantly, helps to ensure that the world's collective resource of rescue expertise can be properly harnessed to deliver the best available rescue capability to all of those in trouble on the water.

IMRF members face life-threatening incidents at sea every day and I know they are keenly aware of the practical difficulties in overcoming the challenges. They work tirelessly, both between and among themselves and in conjunction with specialist equipment suppliers and manufacturers, to hasten the development of better and safer systems, not just for rescuers, but for seafarers and passengers as well.

This kind of co-operation has brought dividends in many areas of related endeavour, such as the development of better and faster rescue craft; new rescue techniques; better lifejackets and personal flotation devices; improved personal survival garments; distress communication and casualty location systems; the use of computer technology to assist in search and rescue operations; and developments in crew training, protection and welfare.

Most importantly, though, what all these efforts and developments translate into are improvements in your ability to save lives - and what could possibly be more fulfilling an achievement than that?

This is why lifeboats - and especially the brave people who man and operate them - have always occupied a very special place, not only in the hearts of seafarers but also in those of the non-maritime public as well. Everybody recognizes that they represent the last hope and chance of survival for those who are in danger and we know that, in the final analysis, rescue depends on the courage, skill and dedication of those who man them.

By a fortunate coincidence, in this year of your Federation's transformation, in this year of our hosts' splendid centenary, IMO will pay due tribute to that selfless courage, skill and dedication that characterizes your community, by presenting, for the first time ever, the IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea to a worthy individual or organization, who, at the risk of losing their own life, perform acts of exceptional bravery in attempting to save life at sea or preventing or mitigating damage to the marine environment. The first recipient of this prestigious new Award, which is to be given annually, will be selected by the IMO Council later this month and I should like to take this opportunity to thank the Federation for its co-operation in not only submitting nominees for the Award, but also delegating a representative to participate in the Assessment Panel that only last Wednesday reviewed all the nominations received for this inaugural Award.

Mr. Chairman,

History tells me that it was as long ago as the 14th Century that the Chinese developed the first benevolent, humane societies aimed at organizing provision for rescuing the victims of maritime accidents and, ever since then, lifeboats have really represented the last line of defence in shipping safety. For when everything else has failed, it is the lifeboat that comes to the rescue and, despite the advances that have been made in technology over the years, we know that life-saving at sea is, as ever, difficult, dangerous and sometimes still deadly.

The regulatory work of IMO, which is almost entirely office-bound and non-physical in nature, may seem a thousand miles away from the experiences of the lifeboatmen and women, who operate very much at the "sharp end". Yet we all share the same broad objectives. We all want to see safer shipping and we all want to see a reduction in the loss of life at sea. In this way, a considerable amount of what we do at IMO is of direct relevance to the lifeboat community, as we strive to improve safety at sea and, by so doing, to make the work of the world's lifeboat organizations less dangerous and more successful.

Indeed, your predecessor Federation was closely involved in IMO's work since being granted consultative status in 1985 and I would like to thank you, Mr. Chairman, and all your Members for the tremendous support and assistance you have given us over the years. Among the many significant contributions you have made, one thinks in particular of your invaluable participation in the development of IMO's Global Search and Rescue Plan, following the adoption of the 1979 SAR Convention, and in the evolution of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, both of which have been credited with the saving of many lives over the years. Your input in the updating of the SOLAS provisions concerning life-saving appliances and arrangements; in the comprehensive revision of the SAR Convention; and in the development of the IAMSAR Manual also merit a special mention here.

Your contribution to these efforts was recognized by the IMO Council nearly ten years ago, when it awarded the International Maritime Prize for 1998 to the International Lifeboat Federation. The Prize is awarded each year to the person or organization judged by the Council to have made the most significant contribution to IMO's work and objectives and this was the first and, to date, only time that the Prize has been given to an organization, rather than to an individual, thus confirming the great esteem in which your Federation is held by the maritime community.

One aspect of your work, which I feel needs to be particularly lauded, is the almost evangelistic zeal with which you seek to expand your influence all around the world and, in particular, into those areas where the provision of search and rescue facilities is less well advanced. The fact that not all areas of the world have yet got adequate maritime rescue services and, indeed, that some have nothing at all, is very serious and a source of grave concern to us all - an issue, however, which we should view as a challenge to address and rectify. Over the past eighty years, your member organizations have, to their credit, worked tirelessly to promote the establishment of new rescue organizations and provided them with the essential assistance and equipment they need to become operational.

Your membership, which has grown significantly over the past fifty years, includes many of these more recently established organizations, which openly accredit their very existence to the start-up and on-going developmental assistance they received from the more established IMRF members. It is particularly gratifying to note that, through some kind of a welcome chain reaction, many of these member organizations have now reached a stage of maturity where they themselves can provide assistance to other new organizations in their respective regions. Working together, in this truly humanitarian and co-operative spirit, your members continue to make an invaluable contribution towards stemming loss of life at sea, particularly in those areas of the world that do not yet enjoy the same means and expertise.

Today, the International Maritime Rescue Federation brings together more than 90 maritime emergency organizations, from the world's largest rescue services to newly formed start-up organizations, from more than 60 different countries around the world. This global community operates thousands of maritime and aeronautical rescue craft and represents tens of thousands of active maritime rescue personnel, all united in one common cause - to work together, so that others may survive.

In this context, I am certain that recent developments in the continent of Africa - developments that have helped to plug major gaps in the effective search and rescue coverage along the coastline of that continent and far out into the Indian Ocean - will have given as much satisfaction to you as they have to me. In May 2006, I was privileged to open a brand-new, state-of-the-art, Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Mombasa, Kenya and, earlier this year, I inaugurated a similar facility in Cape Town, South Africa. Indeed, the Federation provided several advisers to deliver the Search and Rescue Development Workshop, jointly hosted by IMO and the Government of Kenya, that was held to coincide with the opening of the new MRCC in Mombasa, and I should like to re-iterate my thanks for your tremendous support in this undertaking.

Along with their associated Maritime Rescue Sub-Centres these facilities form part of a regional search and rescue system that is being put in place as a result of a resolution adopted by the IMO Conference on search and rescue and the GMDSS - held in October 2000 in Florence, Italy - which agreed the establishment of five sub regional MRCCs and 26 MRSCs in western, southern and eastern parts of Africa. Once up and running, they will help to provide search and rescue coverage in what had previously been identified as one of the areas suffering unduly from a lack of adequate SAR and GMDSS facilities.

Funding for the project has been through IMO's International SAR Fund, a multi-donor trust fund designed to assist countries, which do not have the resources to put into place an adequate SAR infrastructure and, by doing so, to boost the Organization's efforts to implement the Global Search and Rescue Plan. The new facilities in Africa represent excellent examples of what can be achieved when the need is sufficiently compelling and the will to succeed is sufficiently strong and I have every confidence that the experience gained will serve as an example for other regions to follow.

Ladies and gentlemen, to return to the business in hand today,

Each year, thousands of people around the world owe their lives to the International Maritime Rescue Federation, thanks to the selfless efforts of its member organizations, be they voluntary or State-administered. While going about your business with modesty and pride, you have also, over the years, played a prominent role in furthering the work of IMO, helping us to achieve our safety-related and environmental objectives - and we are grateful for that.

The commitment shown by your members, often at the risk of their own lives, is legendary and, if such dedication to safety were reflected throughout the shipping industry, it would, without question, be a better place.

This event, the World Maritime Rescue Congress and 20th International Lifeboat Conference, is building on a long and noteworthy track record, bringing together the maritime search and rescue community from all over the world in pursuit of shared goals. This year, in addition to the traditional conference and first Assembly of the new International Maritime Rescue Federation, it also includes a major exhibition of rescue craft and equipment, both historic and modern, from around the globe, which I can recommend highly to all of you.

With these words, I wish you all every success, both for this event and for the future as you embark on a new beginning and, I am sure, continue to go from strength to strength. IMO stands by you and we are proud to have you in our family.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you.