Navigate Up
Home » Knowledge Centre » References and Archives » The Origins of IMO

The Origins of the International Maritime Organization


1. Introduction

2. Overview of policies, regulations and international law on safety at sea
National intervention
Towards internationalization in the 19th and 20th century

SOLAS: 1914

SOLAS: 1929 

 
            Comité Maritime International
            Allied war agencies
            League of Nations Organization
 

            Temporary Transport and Communications Commission

            United Maritime Consultative Council (UMCC)

            Provisional Maritime Consultative Council

            Preparatory Committee of Experts on Co-ordination of Safety at Sea and in the Air

 

 
            SOLAS: 1948
            OILPOL: 1954
            First IMO Assembly: 1959
            SOLAS Convention: 1960
 
 
 
8.  World Maritime Day 2008
            WMD 2008 - Background paper
            WMD 2008 - Message
  
 
Seafaring has always been one of the world's most dangerous occupations.  The unpredictability of the weather and the vast power of the sea itself seemed so great that for centuries it was assumed that little could be done to make shipping safer.

 

In response to major disasters, states moved towards internationalization of the law, first by the harmonization of local regulations, through bilateral treaties, agreements or understandings among the leading maritime nations. Some organizations operated for a time and then vanished or were absorbed, others were transitory to meet the exigencies of war. Next, nations held international conferences in order to set up universal rules and finally, intergovernmental organizations took over in order to encourage the adoption of international instruments to regulate safety at sea and prevention of pollution from ships. 

 

A Conference convened by the United Nations in Geneva in 1948 ended on 6 March with the successful adoption of the Convention on the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO). The Organization changed its name to International Maritime Organization (IMO) in May 1982.


IMO was born into a world weary from war and in which the old colonial powers still held sway inter​ms of global prosperity and trade. As a consequence, these were also major powers in shipping and, as the leading maritime nations, they tended to create their own standards with regard to vessel construction, safety, manning and so on.

 
But, in 1948, a new spirit of global unity was in the air and the first glimpses of a new world order on the horizon combined to cause a number of far-sighted nations to draw up the blueprint for an international organization that would develop standards for shipping - for adoption and universal implementation throughout the entire industry.(1)   
 
 
2. Overview of policies, regulations and international law on safety at sea
 
In his work of reference “Safety at Sea- Policies, Regulations and International Law (2)  Philippe Boisson, Legal Adviser to the Marine Division of Bureau Veritas, gives a detailed overview of the history of safety at sea   from ancient times to  the  beginnings of accident prevention in the Middle Ages, the policing of navigation to the end of the 18th century, the growth of interventionism in the 19th century, the development of French regulations, the establishment of British legislation, the first navigation rules and the internationalisation of regulations in the 20th Century.
 
 
“Attempts had been made in the 17th century to establish universal uniform principles based on mediaeval maritime codes. In the first half of the 19th century it was commonly acknowledged that the courts of admiralty and maritime law were courts of international law. In the common law system this view gathered strength from landmark judgments in England and the United States which were founded upon declared universal principles.
But it was not until the nineteenth century that there was general recognition of the need to formalize ancient customs by enacting legal treaties” (3).
 
A fatalistic attitude towards the dangers of seafaring began to change. The invention of the steam engine meant that ships were less at the mercy of wind and tide. At the same time, maritime commerce was increasing and vast numbers of people were moving from continent to continent.
  
The industrial revolution encouraged the development of maritime transport with the introduction of steam-powered engines on board ships and the construction of iron and steel hulls. However, greater numbers, speed and size inevitably led to more accidents. Under the pressure of public opinion outraged by recurring disasters, British and French legislators sought to strengthen the safety of maritime transport. During the winter of 1820 alone, more than two-thousand ships were wrecked in the North Sea, causing the death of twenty thousand people” (4).
 
In the UK, the Passengers Act was passed in 1800 and in 1836 a Parliamentary Select Committee on the Causes of Shipwreck was initiated by the Member of Parliament James Silk Buckingham. Parliamentary enquiries on wrecks in the timber trade to examine the causes of shipwrecks were set up in 1839 and 1843. 

“The investigation drew attention to ten determining factors, including defective construction, inadequate equipment, imperfect state of repair, improper and excessive loading, incompetence of masters. drunkenness among officers and crew, and marine insurance which inclined shipowners to disregard safety.  A first series of measures was introduced after the publication of the parliamentary report.  In 1839, restrictions were placed on the transport of timber deck cargoes in the North Atlantic” (5).
 
The 19th century also saw the first regulations for navigation at sea. France and the UK signed an agreement in 1848 on the lighting of steamships and in 1852 an agreement on signaling for sailing ships. In 1862, they adopted the first set of collision regulations; they began to be adopted on a wide geographical scale by national legislation thus giving greater impetus to the quest for uniformity in maritime law.
 
The most important advance came with the UK Merchant Shipping Act of 1850 which marked the start of state action. The Board of Trade was given the task of monitoring, regulating and controlling all issues relating to merchant shipping, and more specifically the safety of ships and the working conditions of seamen, in order to remedy the serious abuses that had been found. It was also responsible for establishing a wreck register, investigating wrecks and introducing examinations for masters and mates of foreign-going ship. A whole series of technical provisions concerning safety equipment on wooden ships were also adopted.  These measures had little effect, however: on average two thousand ships were lost annually.  In 1867 alone, 1,313 shipwrecks resulted in the death of 2,340 British sailors and 137 passengers (6)
 
In 1857, James Hall, a shipowner from Tynemouth in the UK lead a campaign for the compulsory inspection of ships and the introduction of a maximum load line.
 
A Royal Commission on Unseaworthy Ships was set up in the UK in 1873, to investigate the claimed unseaworthiness of British vessels, particularly the conditions of loading.  The Liberal Member of Parliament for Derby, Samuel Plimsoll, denounced the scandal of “coffin ships" and a year after the publication of his manifesto, Parliament adopted the Merchant Shipping Act of 1876, known as the "Plimsoll Act.

The Plimsoll Act laid down new requirements, with criminal penalties for shipowners found guilty of operating ships which presented a risk to human life.
“The Act which instituted draught of water marks, put an end to the dangerous practice of leaving the captain complete discretion as to loading.  The new regulations banned bulk loading of grain, in order to prevent the cargo shifting, and grain in sacks as deck cargo. For the first time, the Board of trade was authorised to detain substandard ships coming in British ports. Any infringement warranted the arrest of the ship.  The Act also required all merchant vessels of more than 80 tons to display a maximum loadline. 

Despite its very stringent provisions, the Plimsoll Act did not put an end to the scandal of shipwrecks.  In 1882, more than three thousand seamen and three hundred and sixty passengers perished in more than 1,120 shipping accidents to British vessels” (7).
 
Another Royal Commission was appointed in 1884 to try and end the scandal of shipwrecks.  In its final report, published in 1887, the Commission recommended several improvements to the safety of steamships, which had gradually replaced sailing ships.
 
The 1890 Merchant Shipping Load Line Act laid down official rules for freeboard tables and calculations.  These had been introduced five years earlier, on an experimental and purely voluntary basis by the Board of Trade, which relied on the work of Lloyd's Register and Bureau Veritas to give them formal expression.
 
In 1894 The Merchant Shipping Act (UK) was passed. The regulations, laid down in the Act, as amended by the Act of 21 December 1906, increased the seaworthiness and safety of ships, and health arrangements on board.  Load line requirements were applied to all vessels, including foreign ships visiting UK ports. Soon, other countries followed the British model (8).
 
 
19th century
 
The International (now World) Meteorological Organization was set up in 1863, followed a year later by the Universal Postal Union.
The invention of telegraphy revolutionized communications and led to the establishment in 1865 of the International Telegraph Union (now the International Telecommunications  Union . In view of this trend towards co-operation between nations it seemed logical that a similar body should be established to regulate shipping, which could claim to be the oldest international industry and by the late nineteenth century was more important to the world than ever before. 

On 28 July 1879 nineteen States adopted joint rules in London for an international signal code and on 1st September 1880, an international convention was signed to set the first rules for preventing collisions. The first convention on health and safety for steam packet navigation was signed on July 28th, 1881.
 
The first International Maritime Conference (9) met from October 16 to December 31st 1889 in Washington DC. Delegates from major and minor maritime powers considered potential areas for collaboration on safety and defined thirteen groups of regulatory principles, which were subsequently adopted and implemented by all the States, without giving rise to an official convention.  But the outcome was limited to refinement of collision rules and an agreement on an International Code of Signals which came into force in 1897. 
 
One of the submissions made at the conference proposed the setting up of a Permanent International Commission to cater for the needs of shipping but this was rejected. The Conference announced that "for the present the establishment of a permanent international maritime commission is not considered expedient".  The reason, although not stated explicitly, was that the shipping industry was suspicious of any attempt to control its activities and restrict its commercial freedom.

In 1896, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITWF) was founded in London to co-ordinate maritime and other transport-related union worldwide.
 
20th century
 
The move from uniform rules and customs towards internationalization of the law intensified throughout the 20th century.  Several factors incited the major maritime nations to adopt joint safety rules:
 
Problem of the high seas:
The intention was to set the conditions for exercising the freedom of the high seas in the interests of the whole international community, and also to avoid anarchy leading to dangerous conditions for maritime navigation.  The introduction of maritime traffic policing raised no problem in those parts of the sea that were the territorial waters of coastal countries, whose governments had full latitude to introduce whatever standards they pleased.  The problem mainly involved the high seas, where the principle of freedom traditionally prevailed.  It was very soon realised that it was in everyone's interest to agree on a minimum of rules to be respected, for both signals and traffic.  These came to form the "common law of the sea'", covering rules for navigation, rescue and collisions.
 
Foreign ships in port:
In the early years of the century, every State laid down its own conditions for the control of ships in its ports.  Three examples illustrate this regulatory and administrative diversity.  In Britain, the 1906 Merchant Shipping Act officially applied loading and minimum load line requirements to foreign ships.  In France, the provisions of the 1907 Act on crews referred only to French ships, while those concerning surveys applied to both French and foreign vessels.  The United States Seamen's Act of March 1915 applied to foreign ships sailing from American ports.  But in practice, steamships not carrying passengers were exempted.  This range of provisions resulted in considerable uncertainty, for the navigational permits and seaworthiness certificates had no international validity.  Confusion reigned, to the extent that ships visiting ports in several states were sometimes required to meet contradictory safety conditions. 
 
Regulation of competition: 
Repeated maritime disasters gradually convinced national legislators that economic rivalries, particularly as regard fleet operation, could endanger safety and bring this form of transport irretrievably into disrepute.  It was realised that only an agreement among States, laying down minimum standards to be met by a particular ship performing a particular service, could offer a satisfactory long-term solution” (10).
 
At the beginning of the 20th century, freedom of competition reigned supreme.  Ships could be built without reference to standards, navigate without following any rules, be equipped with what was deemed necessary. Those ships operated under their own standards and sailed on any seas.  A few common navigational rules had emerged, following the holding of the first international conference on the safety of maritime transport in 1889. 
By July 1912, a wireless telegraphy conference, held in London, made intercommunication systems and radio equipment on board ships compulsory.  It also allocated certain wavelengths to ships and coastal stations, long-distance radio telegrams and radio lighthouses.  Its application was to be suspended during the First World War, but it came into force again in 1919.
The standard-setting process spread internationally between the wars.  The 1920 conference on the International Union of Electrical Communications revised the rules of the 1912 convention on wireless telegraphy, and the principles of the 1914 SOLAS Convention.
 
 
The sinking of the Titanic on  14 April 1912 after colliding with an iceberg   was the catalyst for the adoption in 1914 of the first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).  More than 1,500 passengers and crew died and the disaster raised so many questions about the safety standards in force that the United Kingdom Government proposed holding a conference to develop international regulations.  The Conference, which was attended by representatives of 13 countries, introduced new international requirements dealing with safety of navigation for all merchant ships; the provision of watertight and fire-resistant bulkheads; life-saving appliances; and fire prevention and fire fighting appliances on passenger ships.  Other requirements dealt with the carriage of radiotelegraph equipment for ships carrying more than 50 persons (had the Titanic's distress messages not been picked up by other ships the loss of life would probably have been even greater); the Conference also agreed on the establishment of a North Atlantic ice patrol. 

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea SOLAS 1914
was adopted on 20 January 1914 but did not enter into force in July 1915 as the war had broken. It had been signed by only 5 states but led to extensive application regulations in Britain, France, the United States and Scandinavia.
 
Establishment of the International Labour Organization: 1919
The International Labour Organization (ILO) was established in Geneva in 1919 to improve and monitor labour conditions on land and sea. The new organization adopted in 1921, a convention on a minimum age for admission of employment as seamen on ships Minimum Age (Sea) Convention and launched the first campaigns against flags of convenience in 1930.
 
   
A second conference on the safety of human life at sea took place in London in 1929; this time 18 countries attended.  SOLAS 1929 contained some sixty articles on ship construction, lifesaving equipment, fire prevention and fire fighting, wireless telegraphy equipment, navigation aids and rules to prevent collisions. It entered into force in 1933.

One of the two annexes to the convention revised the international regulations for preventing collisions at sea (Collision Regulations).
Two other conferences, one in Washington in 1927 and the other in Madrid in 1931, finalized international regulations on radiocommunications.
 
 
The first Maritime Law Association was formed in Belgium in 1896, following the initiative of a young Belgian lawyer, Louis Franck, and Charles Le Jeune, a renowned insurer. The Association  presented the International Law Association with a number of proposals to codify international maritime law.
 
They formed, in 1897, the Comité Maritime International (11) the oldest international organization in the maritime field concerned exclusively with maritime law and related commercial practices. From its inception, the CMI’s objective was unification of maritime law, customs, usages, and practices, through international conventions and submissions to diplomatic conferences. They considered that their aim should be achieved jointly by “maritime lawyers, together with average adjusters and representatives of all branches of maritime industry: shipowners, shippers, underwriters, bankers, ship and chartering brokers, shipbuilders and the like.  In the following years, similar maritime law associations were formed and a supranational organization was created in 1897 in Antwerp which took the name of Comité Maritime International (CMI).
 
The first international conference of the CMI was held in Brussels in 1897.  The subjects on the agenda were collision at sea and limitation of shipowners’ liability.  Conferences on the same subject followed in Antwerp in 1898 and London in 1889, in Paris in 1900 on salvage and jurisdiction in collision matters, and in Hamburg in 1902 on of collision and mortgages and liens.
 
In 1905 the Belgian Government convened a diplomatic conference for the purpose of discussing the draft conventions on collision and salvage prepared by the CMI. This became an established procedure and the diplomatic conference was institutionalised under the name of Conference Diplomatique de Droit Maritime.” (12).
 

Nineteen conferences concerned with legal aspects of merchant shipping were held between 1897 and 1937.  Among the subjects dealt with were limitation of shipowners’ liability, maritime mortgages and liens, immunity of state-owned ships and exemption clauses in bills of lading.  
 
 
Allied Maritime Transport Council:1917-1919
 
The Allies recognized the importance of shipping as a vital factor in warfare but a naval conference in 1917 did not succeed to solve the needs of the UK, France and Italy.  Problems of shipping increased with the need for American troops across the Atlantic to maintain a life line of imports to the European Allies. A conference held in Paris in December 1917 established a subcommittee on importation and maritime transport for the purpose of maintaining a broad survey not only of the general material needs of the various nations but also of available shipping facilities. This committee established the Allied Maritime transport Council which ceased with the Armistice (13).
 
 
The League of Nations established in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security, appointed an Organization for Communications and Transit. The Organization played an important role in harmonising standards; it adopted a declaration recognising the right of landlocked states to possess a merchant fleet and in 1923 in Geneva, a Convention on maritime port regimes.

The Organization set up two committees in London in 1924, one to investigate the problems raised by unification of registered tonnage provisions, and the other to examine issues of maritime navigation, buoyage and lighting of coasts.  The 1930 Conference reached agreements on the unification of maritime signals and the preparation of draft international regulations and uniform methods covering the tonnage measurement of ships. The Commission continued its work until 1939. 
  
Combined Shipping Adjustment Board: 1942
  
This board was established by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill to harmonize policies of the UK Ministry of war Transport and the US shipping authorities but also to provide the most effective use of the joint shipping resources of the United Nations and to achieve speedy transportation of goods  and raw materials and the supply of war essentials to the fighting fronts.
 
United Maritime Authority: 1945-1946 
 
Representatives of allied countries met in London in July 1944 to draw up an agreement on principles for the continuation of coordinated control of merchant shipping and the establishment of a new multilateral body, the United Maritime Authority.  It controlled more than 90 per cent of merchant ships’ tonnage under Allied and neutral registries, regulating the routes, cargoes, sailings and freight and charter rates. The Council of the Authority met in London in February 1946 and recommended the establishment of a temporary successor agency.

A preparatory Commission meeting in London in December 1945 to bring the UN into full operation suggested the establishment of a Temporary Transport and Communications Commission to review the general field of international transport and communications in order to advise the Economic and Social council on any machinery which it will deem be necessary to establish either as part of the United Nations or as a new specialized agency (14).  
 
In 1945, representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization to draw up the United Nations Charter and the United Nations officially came into existence on 24 October 1945. 
Although most of the attention was focused on New York and the General Assembly, the founders of the United Nations  envisaged it as comprising not just one but a series of international organizations, each dealing with a different subject, some humanitarian, some technical. As a result, a number of specialized agencies were established and agencies which already existed were brought within the framework of the United Nations. In 1944 the International Civil Aviation Organization was founded - only 32 years after the first flight by the Wright brothers. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) were created 1in 1945, followed by the World Heath Organization (WHO) in 1947.  

The climate began to change in 1945.  The post-Second World War era witnessed a gradual decline in British power and influence and by 1945 and, at last, it seemed that a serious attempt could be made to establish a similar body for shipping.
  
 
In January and February 1946, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations held its first session in Church House in London and adopted a resolution establishing a Temporary Transport and Communications Commission.  The resolution stated that establishment of formal relationships with existing governmental agencies in the field of maritime transport would be premature, but it took into account the need for some form of preliminary contact with such organizations. It also recognised the need for advice on practical problems involved and on the adequacy of the international structure in those fields.

The newly created Temporary Transport Commission held its first meetings in April and May 1946 in New York and noted the existence of a large number of international organizations, conventions and agreements governing many aspects of shipping.  It recommended the establishment of a Permanent Transport and Communications Commission to serve in an advisory capacity with respect to coordination of specialized agencies.

In a resolution (see E/CONF.4/4 p.16) of June 21 1946 the Economic and Social Council requested its now Permanent Transport and Communications Commission to examine the question.  The Commission at its meeting in February 1947 recommended that the UN should support the establishment of a world-wide inter-governmental technical organization in the field of shipping. The principal tasks of such an organization would be to provide for exchange of information, determine the need for revising existing agreements and conventions, adopt new agreements and conventions and deal on behalf of shipping with other organizations in the field of communications.
 
 
Upon the termination of the United Maritime Authority on March 2nd 1946, the United Maritime Consultative Council was established (15); its role was to maintain for the eight months' "transitional period", ending October 31, 1946, a simplified and limited control over international shipping to ensure the availability of vessel tonnage for United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) shipments and the essential import programmes of various European governments.

The UMCC which held its first session in Amsterdam from June 18 to 24, 1946, was asked by the United Nations, through the Secretary General, for its views on "the question of establishing a world-wide inter-governmental shipping organization to deal with technical matters".
 
Second session of the United Maritime Consultative Council (UMCC): October 1946
 
The UMCC met in Washington in October 1946 for its final session and agreed to recommend to its 18 member governments the establishment through the machinery of the UN of a permanent shipping organization.  It also agreed, as a temporary measure, pending the creation of permanent body, to form a further interim body, the Provisional Maritime Consultative Council. E/CONF.4/1 p.2  Annexed to its recommendations were a draft convention for an intergovernmental maritime consultative organizations, the so-called “Washington draft” (E/CONF.4/1)  and an Agreement for the Establishment of a Provisional Maritime Consultative Council.
A list of all documents submitted at the UMCC second session can be found HERE with links to the full text.
 
The Washington Draft provided for the establishment of an Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization, consisting of an Assembly of delegates of all member governments, a Council of sixteen governments elected by the Assembly; a Maritime Safety Committee of twelve member governments, and a small Secretariat. The proposed organization would be purely consultative and advisory, without executive powers. Its purpose was to provide machinery in the international shipping field for cooperation among governments, encouragement of the removal of discriminatory practices, exchange of information, and consideration of maritime problems generally.
 
 
The Provisional Maritime Consultative Council met in May 1947 and appointed a committee of three to serve on an inter-organization committee on coordination of activities in the field of safety (16).
 
The Economic and Social Council adopted a resolution (see E/CONF.4/4 p.20) at its fourth session in February-March 1947, requesting the Secretary-General to convene a conference of interested governments to consider the establishment of an inter-governmental maritime organization. 

Finally, on 10 April 1947, the Secretary-General of the United Nations sent out  a note of invitation together with the text of the Washington Draft and requested the interested governments to submit any comments or amendments to him. The comments and proposed amendments received were circulated to governments (E/CONF.4/2).
 
 
A Preparatory Committee of Experts on Co-ordination of Safety at Sea and in the Air was convened by the UK in accordance with a resolution (E/CONF.4/8) of the Economic and Social Council adopted on March 28th, 1947.  It was decided that a small committee should prepare a factual report describing existing measures for co-ordination of safety and rescue arrangements. 
The preparatory meeting was held in London 27 January - 6 February 1948 (see documents HERE).
 
 
The United Nations duly convened a conference in Geneva between February 19 and March 6th under the presidency of Dr. J. J. Oyevaar of the Netherlands, to consider the establishment of a new Organization to deal with international shipping, especially shipping safety.  The conference ended with the successful adoption on 6 March of a Final Act (E/CONF.4/62) and the Convention for the Establishment of an Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO) (E/CONF.4/61) (17).
 
A LIST OF DOCUMENTS SUBMITTED TO THE CONFERENCE CAN BE FOUND HERE WITH LINKS TO FULL TEXT
 
Three resolutions were included in annex to the Final Act:
Annex A: Resolution on Establishment of the Preparatory Committee of the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization. 
Annex B: Draft Resolution on the Safety of Life at Sea Conference with the purpose of tying in the results of the Maritime Conference with the safety of Life at Sea Conference which was to convene in the following month.
Annex C: Resolution submitted by the United States relating to the Report of the Preparatory Committee of Experts on Co-ordination of Safety at Sea and the Air.
 
Only 36 countries attended the 1948 conference in Geneva (four of them as observers):
Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China (Nationalist), Colombia, Czechoslovakia, Denmark,  Dominican Republic, Egypt, Eire, Finland, France, Greece, India, Italy, Lebanon, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States.  
Observers: Cuba, Ecuador, Iran and South Africa 
Inter-Governmental Organizations:
International Civil Aviation Organisation
International Labour Organisation
International Meteorological Organization
International Telecommunications Union
World Health Organization 
 
The following Non-Governmental Organizations were represented by observers:
International Chamber of Commerce
International Co-operative Alliance
International Law Association
International Transport Workers Federation
 
The aims of the new Organization are summarized in Article I.
Article 2, Part II of the Convention, declared: "The functions of the Organization shall be consultative and advisory." 
Article 3 (b) said that, in order to achieve the purposes set out in Article I, IMO should "provide for the drafting of conventions, agreements, or other suitable instruments, and to recommend these to Governments and to intergovernmental organizations, and to convene such conferences as may be necessary". 
Article 3 (c) said that IMO should "provide machinery for consultation among Members and the exchange of information among Governments". 
 
The Convention provided for three main organs: the Assembly, the Council and the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC). 
 
The Assembly 
The Assembly was to consist of all Member States and to meet once every two years, with provision being made for extraordinary sessions to be called if necessary. Its main tasks were to vote on the budget and decide financial arrangements, to determine the general policy of the Organization to achieve the purposes of Article I and to adopt resolutions submitted to it by the Council and the MSC.  
 
The Council 
The Council consisted of 16 Member States elected by the Assembly, of whom, according to Article 17:
(a) six shall be governments of the nations with the largest interest in providing international shipping services;
(b) six shall be governments of other nations with the largest interest in international seaborne trade;
(c) two shall be elected by the Assembly from among the Governments of nations having a substantial interest in providing international shipping services, and
d) two shall be elected by the Assembly from among the governments of nations having  substantial interest in international seaborne trade. 
The main functions of the Council were to receive recommendations and reports of the MSC and transmit them to the Assembly; to appoint the Secretary-General, with the approval of Assembly; to submit budget estimates and, between sessions of the Assembly, to perform other functions of the Organization.
 
The Maritime Safety Committee  
The Maritime Safety Committee was also an elected body consisting of 14 Members elected by the Assembly. Eight were to be the largest shipowning nations and the remainder were to be elected "so as to ensure adequate representation of other Members, governments of other nations with an important interest in maritime safety, such as nations interested in the supply of large numbers of crews or in the carriage of large numbers of berthed and unberthed passengers, and of major geographical areas".  Members were to be elected every four years and were to be eligible for re-election.
  
The duties of the MSC (Article 29) were to consider "aids to navigation, construction and equipment of vessels, manning from a safety standpoint, rules for the prevention of collisions, handling of dangerous cargoes, maritime safety procedures and requirements, hydrographic information, log-books and navigational records, marine casualty investigation, salvage and rescue and any other matters directly affecting maritime safety". 
 
The functions of the Committee were further defined in the next few articles and the Convention then went on to deal with the Secretariat, finances, voting (each Member was to have one vote), the headquarters (it was to be in London) and various other matters. Article 59 stated that the Convention "would enter into force on the date when 21 States, of which seven shall each have a total tonnage of not less than 1,000,000 gross tons of shipping, have become parties to the Convention..." 
 
Funding
The question of funding was left to the IMO Assembly to decide. Article 41 of the Convention stated that the Assembly "shall apportion the expenses among the members in accordance with a scale to be fixed by it after consideration of the proposals of the Council thereon". 
 
 
The continuing suspicion of some sections of the shipping industry about the role of an international organization meant that it took ten years for sufficient countries to accept the Convention for it to meet entry into force requirements.  
The problem of an interim organization was met by the establishment of the Preparatory Committee of the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization.   
 
 
The Preparatory Committee of 12 members was charged with dealing with rules of procedure, draft financial regulations, and convening the first session of the Assembly upon entry of the Convention into force. They included Australia, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States, representing States with the largest interest in providing international shipping services, and Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France and India, representing States with the largest interest in international seaborne trade.
 
The Preparatory Committee also resolved that a conference to revise the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), due to be held in London later in 1948, should draft provisions taking into account the duties and functions which had been accorded to IMO, the intention being to delegate future responsibilities for the Convention to IMO. 
 
The Preparatory Committee of the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization held four sessions: 
The full text of the documents for the 4 meetings can be found here
 
First Session:     6 March 1948 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva
Second session: 30 November and 1 December 1948 at Lake Success (New York)
Third Session:    3 June 1958 at UN Headquarters in New York
Fourth Session:  January 1959 at Church House, London 
 
The tasks of this committee was also inter alia to enter into negotiations with the United Nations to prepare a relationship agreement as contemplated in Article 57 of the Charter of the United Nations and Article 45 of the IMO Convention, using as a basis the Draft Agreement on Relationship between the United Nations and the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (E/CONF.4/62).
 
The Economic and Social Council during its seventh session from 19 July to 29 August 1948 adopted Resolution 165(VII) on the Draft Agreement.  
 
On November 8 the General Assembly approved the Agreement (Resolution 204(III)) although, in accordance with the provisions of Article 19 thereof, the agreement could not come into force until approved by the IMO Assembly of IMO as well.

“But the process of obtaining the necessary acceptance to the IMO Convention was slow. By the end of 1949 only Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom had accepted. Greece and the United States accepted in 1950 (Greece later withdraw its acceptance but accepted again (subject to a declaration) on December 31st, 1958.); Belgium, Burma and Ireland in 1951; Australia, France and Israel in 1952; Argentina, the Dominican Republic and Haiti in 1953; Egypt (an acceptance by the United Arab Republic was substituted in 1958) Honduras and Mexico (with a reservation) in 1954; Switzerland in 1955; Ecuador (with a declaration) in 1956; Italy in 1957; and Nationalist China, Iran, Japan, Norway (with a declaration), Pakistan, Panama, Turkey and the U.S.S.R. in 1958.
 
Entry into force
 
On April 4th, 1958, the Secretary-General of the United Nations notified all States concerned by circular letter that, with the deposit of the Japanese acceptance on March 17, 1958, the conditions required by Article 60 for the coming into force of the Convention had been fulfilled: namely, twenty-one States, of which seven had a total tonnage of not less than one million gross tons of shipping, had by that date become parties to the Convention(18).
 
The delay in obtaining the necessary number of acceptances appears to have been due to a feeling on the part of some important shipping States that IMO should confine itself to technical questions only and should not be concerned with commercial matters.
 
In February 1955, at the seventh session of the Transport and Communications Commission, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden proposed, without success, that the Convention should actually be amended with this end in view. This was also raised at the nineteenth session of the Economic and Social Council in May 1955 and at the tenth session of the General Assembly later that year, again without success. 
 
  
By 1948 the 1929 convention had been overtaken by technical developments and the United Kingdom again hosted an international conference which adopted the third SOLAS Convention. It followed the already established pattern but covered a wider range of ships and went into considerably greater detail. 
Important improvements were made in such matters as watertight subdivision in passenger ships; stability standards; the maintenance of essential services in emergencies; structural fire protection, including the introduction of three alternative methods of subdivision by means of fire resistant bulkheads, and the enclosure of main stairways.  An international safety equipment certificate for cargo ships of 500 gross tons and above was introduced - an indication of the growing importance of cargo ships relative to passenger ships, which were already facing competition from aircraft.
 
The Collision Regulations were also revised and regulations concerning the safety of navigation, meteorology and ice patrols were brought up to date. A separate chapter was included dealing with the carriage of grain and dangerous goods, including explosives.  There had been considerable developments in radio since 1929 and the 1948 Convention took these into account (the title of the relevant chapter made specific reference to radiotelephony as well as radiotelegraphy.) 
SOLAS 1948 (see full text HERE) entered into force in 1952. 
 
 
IMO’s functions, as envisaged in the 1948 Convention, had been amplified as a result of developments in the maritime world.  Marine pollution from ships, especially oil pollution associated with tankers, had emerged as a growing threat during the 1950s, and an international conference, convened by the United Kingdom Government in 1954 had adopted a Convention setting forth international regulations for preventing pollution of the seas from oils carried by ships.

Although no reference was made to pollution in the IMO Convention, by 1954 it was serious enough for the United Kingdom to call an international conference which adopted the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil  which became known as the OILPOL Convention. The conference agreed that IMO would assume responsibilities for the convention as soon as the IMO Convention entered into force. 
  
Getting started: 1959
 
When IMO became operational, the world of shipping was not very different from the one that had existed twenty years before.  Although a ship was launched in 1958 which exceeded 100,000 deadweight tons for the first time, ships of more than 20,000 tons were still regarded as big.  Their design had changed very little, and the old Liberty ships and T-2 tankers - the standard ships of World War II - were still to be seen. 

Each shipping nation had its own maritime laws.  There were comparatively few international treaties and those that existed were not accepted or implemented by all maritime states.  The result was that standards and requirements varied considerably and were sometimes even contradictory.
 
It was generally accepted that this situation was damaging to shipping safety at the global level. Not only were standards different, but some were far higher than others. Shipowners who spent relatively little money on safety had an economic advantage over their more conscientious rivals and this was a threat to any serious attempt to improve shipping safety. One of the most important tasks allocated to IMO when it met for the first time was to develop international standards which would replace the multiplicity of national legislation that then existed. 
 
 
The Secretariat established its headquarters in Chancery Lane in 1959 and the first IMO Assembly met in London between January 6th to January 19th, 1959 under the presidency of Louis Audette from Canada, At that time the Organization had only 28 Member States, the majority of which were traditional maritime nations of the northern hemisphere. The Secretariat was equally small, with a total strength of 17 and a budget of not more than $237,500 per year. Mr Ove Nielsen became first Secretary-General (19).
A list of the first Assembly resolutions can be found HERE.
 
It was recognized at the first Assembly that IMO's initial task was to establish a comprehensive body of conventions and other treaty instruments relating to maritime safety and pollution prevention. This task involved updating a number of existing treaties, notably the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and it had always been intended that IMO would take over responsibility for it when the Organization came into being. By 1960, the 1948 Convention was badly out of date, and an IMO conference adopted a new version, which entered into force five years later.
 
IMO also accepted responsibilities regarding the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, the International Code of Signals and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil (OILPOL), which was adopted in 1954.
Another duty undertaken was to establish a group of experts to consider the unification of tonnage measurement - a problem that had vexed the shipping industry almost ever since ships were first constructed.
 
 
The 1948 SOLAS Convention recognized that the creation of this new Organization would, for the first time, mean that there was a permanent international body capable of adopting legislation on all matters related to maritime safety.  It was originally intended that the Convention would be kept up to date by periodic amendments adopted under the auspices of IMO but in the event it took so long to secure the ratifications required to bring the IMO Convention into force that the new Organization did not meet until 1959.  It was then decided that rather than amend the 1948 Convention it would be better to adopt a completely new instrument - the fourth SOLAS Convention.
 
The 1960 SOLAS Conference, which was attended by delegates from 55 countries, 21 more than in 1948, was the first conference to be held by IMO.  Although only twelve years had passed since the last SOLAS Convention was adopted, the pace of technical change was quickening. 
 
Like its predecessor, the new Convention incorporated control provisions including requirements for various surveys and certificates for cargo ships of 300 gross tons and above making international voyages and for a Government to investigate casualties when "it judges that such an investigation may assist in determining what changes in the present regulations might be desirable" and to supply IMO with pertinent information. 
Many safety measures which had once applied only to passenger ships were extended to cargo ships, notably those dealing with emergency power and lighting and fire protection.  The radio requirements were again revised and in the chapter dealing with life-saving appliances, provision was made for the carriage of life rafts, which had developed to such an extent that they could be regarded as a partial substitute for lifeboats in some cases. 
 
Regulations dealing with construction and fire protection were revised as were the rules dealing with the carriage of grain and dangerous goods. The final chapter contained outline requirements for nuclear-powered ships which in 1960 seemed likely to become important in the years to come. As in 1929 and 1948 revised Collision Regulations were annexed to the Convention. 
 
Finally, the Conference adopted some 56 resolutions, many of which called upon IMO to undertake studies, collect and disseminate information or take other action.  These included, for example, a request that IMO develop a unified international code dealing with the carriage of dangerous goods - a resolution which resulted in the adoption five years later of the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code.  The convention entered into force in 1965.
It covered a wide range of measures designed to improve the safety of shipping.  These include subdivision and stability; machinery and electrical installations; fire protection, detection and extinction; lifesaving appliances; radio; the safety of navigation; the carriage of grain; the carriage of dangerous goods; and nuclear ships.
SOLAS 1960 (see full text HERE) entered into force in 1965.
 
 
During the first session of the Assembly a dispute arose concerning the election of the Maritime Safety Committee. Article 28 (a) pro­vided that this important Committee should " consist of fourteen Members elected by the Assembly from the Members, Governments of those nations having an important interest in maritime safety, of which not less than eight shall be the largest ship-owning nations. The Court's Opinion was that the Maritime Safety Committee was not properly constituted since Article 28 (a) required the Assembly to elect the eight countries, with the largest amount of registered tonnage, and this had not been done (20)

The second session of the assembly appointed the following eight members as the eight largest ship-owning nations: United States of America, United Kingdom, Norway, Liberia, Japan, Greece, Italy and France. 

Back to top
 
 
There is no doubt that IMO has come a very long way since its inception. Globalization has transformed international trade, new powers have emerged in shipping and the plethora of measures established by IMO has provided the bedrock on which a safer and cleaner industry can continue to develop and flourish.
Moreover, IMO's work has demonstrated beyond doubt that international standards - developed, agreed, implemented and enforced universally - are the only effective way to regulate such a diverse and truly international industry as shipping.
 
The Organization's standards are now firmly embedded in shipping's consciousness and practice and they shape the industry of today. Indeed, the comprehensive body of IMO conventions (some 50 in total), supported by literally hundreds of codes, guidelines and recommendations, govern just about every facet of the industry - from the design, construction, equipment and operation of ships to the training of seafarers, or from the drawing board to the scrapyard
.
Many of the main IMO treaties (including, for example, SOLAS, the Tonnage and Load Lines Conventions, the Collision Regulations, the STCW Convention and Annexes I and II of MARPOL), have all been ratified by States that are, collectively, responsible for more than 98 per cent of the world's fleet.
 
It is because of the extensive network of global regulations that IMO has developed and adopted over the years that we can say with confidence that, today, shipping is a safe and secure mode of transport; comparatively clean; comparatively environment-friendly; and very energy-efficient.
 
There is no doubt that shipping's environmental consciousness continues to grow. This is illustrated not only by its wide acceptance of IMO's environmental standards and the initiatives that the industry itself has put in place to prevent its operations having a negative impact on the environment, but also by its eagerness to challenge and reverse shipping's unwarranted negative image and, through a variety of media, enhance its environmental credentials, highlighting its ever-improving record and contribution to sustainable development. 
 
IMO - Keydates 1959-1998  
IMO - the first fifty years: World Maritime Day 1998
 
Secretary-General's message for World Maritime Day 2008
Background Document World Maritime Day 2008
 
 
Footnotes

(1)  This article is a brief overview of events which led to the formation of the IMO.  A detailed account of the origins of the Organization may be found in the following articles: 
 
McDonald, Eula. Towards a World maritime Organization – A half century of developments in Ocean Shipping.  Eula McDonald, foreign affairs analyst in the Division of Historical Policy Research at the office of Public Affairs, Department of State  in the United States, provides a comprehensive overview of organizations and events which led to the United Nations Maritime Conference, 1948 and the establishment of the Intergovernmental Consultative Organization. The article was originally published in the  Department of State Bulletin of January 25 and February 1st 1948 and  reprinted in “Toward a World Maritime Organization “  published by the United Nations Division of Publication/Office of Public Affairs (International Organization and Conference Series IV: International Maritime Consultative Organization, Publication 3196).   This document was also included in the United Nations 1948 Conference Document E/CONF.4/13
 
Cates, John M.  “UN Maritime Conference- Geneva 1948” gives a comprehensive account of the discussions during the 1948 Conference.  The article was originally published in the Department of State Bulletin of April 18, 1948 and republished by the Division of Publication/Office of Public Affairs in their International Organization and Conference Series IV: International Maritime Consultative Organization 1 (Publication 3196).  The publication also includes the  article by Eula McDonald entitled “Toward a World Maritime Organization” listed above.  John M. Cates Jr., was an officer in the Division of International Organization Affairs, Office of United Nations Affairs, Department of State. Mr Cates was a member of the US Delegation to the Conference. 
 
Johnson, D.H.N. (1963)  IMCO: The First Four Years (1959-1962). International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 12(1):31-55. 
 
Simmonds, K.R. (1963) The Constitution of the Maritime Safety Committee of IMCO.  International and Comparative Law Quarterly,  12(1):56-87. 
 
(2) Boisson, P. (1999)  Safety At Sea.  Policies, Regulations and International Law.  Preface by William A. O'Neil.  Paris: Edition Bureau Veritas, pp 45-55.
 
 
(4)  Boisson, op cit, 48 In: “Le Courrier”  5  mai 1822, quoted in “Le Bureau Veritas 1828-1928, Editions du  Centenaire, Paris, 1928, p.10
 
(5) Boisson, op cit, p.50
 
(6) Bull, J.W. (1996) An Introduction to Safety at Sea. Glasgow: Brown, Son and Ferguson, p.16
 
(7) Boisson, op cit, p.51
 
(8) Boisson, op cit, p 51: Denmark (Acts of 13 February 1890, 14 May 1909 and 3 January 1911; Sweden (ordinance of 1st July 1898; Norway (Acts of 13 February 1890, 14 May 1909 and 3 January 1911, 1st July 1898, Norway (Acts of 9 June 1903, 3 October 1908, 24 April 1906, 8 August 1908 and 14 July 1909; Germany promulgated an Act concerning seafarers on 7 June 1902. A shipping bill was adopted in the Netherlands on 1st July 1909; the United States set out regulations on safety at sea with the Seamen's Act of March 1915.  Spain based its legislation on the UK model with two Decrees on 18 January 1924 regulating safety on board ship and lifesaving appliances.
 
(9) McDonald, op cit.
 
(10) Boisson, op cit, p 52
 
(11) The Comité Maritime International is universally known by its French acronym “CMI”.  Its English name and acronym–International Maritime Committee (IMC) are no longer in use
 
 
(13) McDonald, op cit, pp 2 et seq
 
(14) Article 55 of the Charter of the United Nations signed in San Francisco in 1945 provided for the promotion of conditions of economic progress and development, and to this end made provision for an Economic and Social Council and “such subsidiary organs as may be found necessary (article 7).
 
(15) McDonald, op cit, pp7 et seq
 
(16) Article I of Provisional Maritime Consultative Council:
 
The Provisional Maritime Consultative Council shall be established as a Temporary organization pending the establishment of a permanent inter-Governmental agency in the maritime field 
(i) to provide machinery for co-operation among Governments in the field of Governmental regulation and practices relating to technical matters of all kinds affecting shipping engaged in international trade, and to encourage the general adoption of the highest practicable standards in matters concerning maritime safety and efficiency of navigation; 

(ii) to encourage the removal of all forms of discriminatory action and unnecessary restrictions by Governments affecting shipping engaged in international trade so as to promote the availability of shipping services to the commerce of the world without discrimination; 

(iii) to provide for the consideration by the Council of any shipping problems of an international character involving matters of general principle that may be referred to the Council by the United Nations. Matters which are suitable for settlement through the normal processes of international shipping business are not within the scope of
the Council; 

(iv) to provide for the exchange of information among Governments on matters under considerations by the Council. 
The Agreement came into force on 23 April 1947.
 
(17)  As a result of the entry into force of the amendments adopted by the IMO Assembly by its resolutions A.358 (IX) of 14 November 1975 and A.371 (X) of 9 November 1977 [see chapter XII.1(d)], the name of the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO) was changed to "International Maritime Organization (IMO) in May 1982.
 
(18) Johnson, op cit, p 38 et se
“In a letter dated April 10, 1959, addressed to the United States Mission to the United Nations, the Legal Counsel to the United Nations confirmed that "The determination of the tonnage was made on the basis of the Lloyds Register, in consultation with the Chairman of the Preparatory Committee of the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization. In so far as concerns the requirement of Article 60 that seven among the States becoming parties should ' each have a total tonnage ' of the state amount, no question was raised, and no consideration was given, as to whether the total tonnage figure of any State then a party, as indicated by Lloyd's Register, should be altered for any reason bearing upon the nature of the ownership of such tonnage." (For the text of this letter see Annex V to the Written Statement of the Government of the United States of America, Constitution of the Maritime Safety Committee case (I.C.J. Pleadings, Oral Arguments and Documents))”
 
(19) Cates, op cit, p.19 et seq  

(20) (1960) I.C.J. Reports 160
 
Other articles:
 
Furuseth, Andrew. (1914) Safety of life at sea :analysis and explanatory notes of the London Convention on Safety of Life at Sea in relation to the American Merchant Marine. Washington : [G.P.O.].
 
Ademun-Odeke. (2007) From the "Constitution of the Maritime Safety Committee" to the "Constitution of the Council": Will the IMCO Experience Repeat Itself at the IMO Nearly Fifty Years On? The Juridical Politics of an International Organization" Texas International Law Journal, 41(1):55-113. 
 
De La Fayette, Louise. (2001) The Marine Environment Protection Committee: the Conjunction of the Law of the Sea and International Environmental Law. International Journal of Maritime and Costal Law,16(2):155-238.
 
 
 
 

 Related Links

 
 

 History of IMO