The International Maritime Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations which is responsible for measures to improve the safety and security of international shipping and to prevent pollution from ships. It is also involved in legal matters, including liability and compensation issues and the facilitation of international maritime traffic. It was established by means of a Convention adopted under the auspices of the United Nations in Geneva on 17 March 1948 and met for the first time in January 1959.
It currently has 174 Member States. IMO's governing body is the Assembly which is made up of all the Member States and meets normally once every two years. It adopts the budget for the next biennium together with technical resolutions and recommendations prepared by subsidiary bodies during the previous two years. The Council, of 40 Member States elected by the Assembly, acts as governing body in between Assembly sessions. It prepares the budget and work programme for the Assembly. The main technical work is carried out by the Maritime Safety, Marine Environment Protection, Legal, Technical Co-operation and Facilitation Committees and a number of sub-committees.
The IMO slogan sums up its objectives: Safe, secure and efficient shipping on clean oceans.
Only a country can become a Member of IMO. IMO currently has 174 Member States.
Shipping and other interests are represented at IMO through Inter-Governmental Organizations (IGOs) which have concluded agreements of co-operation with IMO and Non- Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Consultative Status with IMO.
Individuals wishing to raise an issue at IMO should approach their national maritime administration or appropriate IGO or NGO.
When IMO first began operations its chief concern was to develop international treaties and other legislation concerning safety and marine pollution prevention.
By the late 1970s, however, this work had been largely completed, though a number of important instruments were adopted in more recent years. IMO is now concentrating on keeping legislation up to date and ensuring that it is ratified by as many countries as possible. This has been so successful that many Conventions now apply to more than 98% of world merchant shipping tonnage.
Currently the emphasis is on trying to ensure that these conventions and other treaties are properly implemented by the countries that have accepted them.
The current Secretary-General is Mr. Kitack Lim (Republic of Korea) .
Because shipping is an international industry. If each nation developed its own safety legislation the result would be a maze of differing, often conflicting national laws. One nation, for example, might insist on lifeboats being made of steel and another of glass-reinforced plastic. Some nations might insist on very high safety standards while others might be more lax, acting as havens for sub-standard shipping.
Try the Knowledge Centre on this site.
There are also various external sources of information:
- Click here gives an overview of the shipping industry.
- UNCTAD produces an annual Review of Maritime Transport
IMO's Global Integrated Shipping Information System (GISIS) has a number of modules providing information submitted by Governments, including maritime casualties, reports on piracy and armed robbery, stowaways and so on.
It doesn't. IMO was established to adopt legislation. Governments are responsible for implementing it. When a Government accepts an IMO Convention it agrees to make it part of its own national law and to enforce it just like any other law.
IMO's Sub-Committee on Implementation of IMO Instruments (III) provides a forum for both flag States - responsible for the certifying of ships - and port States - who may inspect ships of any flag - to get together to discuss issues relating to implementation. The III Sub-Committee also reviews casualty investigation reports, to identify lessons learned and make recommendations for further work.
Regional port State control organizations have been established to share information on ships inspected. These regional PSC agreements now cover the whole globe: Europe and the north Atlantic (Paris MOU); Asia and the Pacific (Tokyo MOU); Latin America (Acuerdo de Viña del Mar); Caribbean (Caribbean MOU); West and Central Africa (Abuja MOU); the Black Sea region (Black Sea MOU); the Mediterranean (Mediterranean MOU); the Indian Ocean (Indian Ocean MOU) and the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC MoU (Riyadh MoU)).
IMO also has an extensive technical co-operation programme which concentrates on improving the ability of developing countries to help themselves. It concentrates on developing human resources through maritime training and similar activities.
IMO has developed a Member State Audit Scheme and the audits became mandatory from 1 January 2016.
The Audit Scheme is designed to help promote maritime safety and environmental protection by assessing how effectively Member States implement and enforce relevant IMO Convention standards, and by providing them with feedback and advice on their current performance.
All ships must be surveyed in ordered to be issued certificates which establish their seaworthiness, type of ship, and so on and this is the responsibility of the flag State of the vessel. However, the flag State ("Administration") may "entrust the inspections and surveys either to surveyors nominated for the purpose or to organizations recognized by it" (SOLAS Chapter 1, regulation 6).
In practice these "recognized organizations" are often the classification societies. IMO has adopted a mandatory Code for recognized organizations (RO Code), which provides flag States with standards mechanisms for the oversight, assessment and authorization of recognized organizations (ROs) and clarifies the responsibilities of such organizations.
The International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) is a Non-Governmental Organization which was granted Consultative Status with IMO in 1969.
In 1954 a treaty was adopted dealing with oil pollution from ships. IMO took over responsibility for this treaty in 1959, but it was not until 1967, when the tanker Torrey Canyon ran aground off the coast of the United Kingdom and spilled more than 120,000 tons of oil into the sea, that the shipping world realized just how serious the pollution threat was. Until then many people had believed that the seas were big enough to cope with any pollution caused by human activity. Since then IMO has adopted a whole series of conventions covering prevention of marine pollution by ships, preparedness and response to incidents involving oil and hazardous and noxious substances, prevention of use of harmful anti-fouling systems and the international convention on ballast water management to prevent the spread of harmful aquatic organisms in ballast water.
The Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) deals with all issues relating to marine environment protection as it relates to shipping. the Sub-Committee on Polllution Prevention and Response (PPR) reports to the MEPC.
Protecting the environment from shipping is not just about specific regulations preventing ships dumping oil, garbage or sewage. It is also about the improvements in safety - from mandatory traffic separation schemes to the International Safety Management (ISM) Code and improving seafarer training - which help to prevent accidents occurring.
The preservation of Special Areas and Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas is an important aspect of IMO's work. IMO adopts and designates these areas - so that all Member States have an opportunity to view proposals and discuss any proposed measures, so that any which might impact on the freedom of navigation can be fully explored.
IMO's Technical Co-operation Programme is hugely important in ensuring Member States have the resources and expertise to implement IMO conventions relating to marine pollution prevention. Examples of programmes include: sensitivity mapping to identify which parts of a coastline are particularly vulnerable; training in oil spill response and contingency planning; and the GloBallast Partnerships Project which is addressing ballast water management issues to prevent the transfer of aquatic invasive species.
The IMO has a significant role to play in preserving the marine environment and ensuring that shipping does not have a negative impact. It is recognized that environmentally speaking in terms of energy needed for volume of cargo transported, shipping is one of the "greenest" transport methods.
IMO is heavily engaged in the fight to protect and preserve our environment - both marine and atmospheric - and is energetically pursuing the limitation and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from shipping operations. IMO has adopted measures to reduce air pollution form ships as well as energy efficiency measures including the Energy Efficiency Design Index, which is mandatory for new ships, and the requirement for a Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plan, for all ships.
IMO usually tries to act on a consensus basis. This is because it is important that measures adopted by the Organization, which can have a major impact on shipping, achieve as much support as possible. A treaty that was supported by only 51 per cent of the IMO membership, for example, would be opposed by nearly half the shipping world. Not only would they not ratify the treaty concerned but they might go off and adopt an alternative treaty of their own, thereby dividing the maritime community. But this does not mean that the measures themselves are of a low standard.
Experience has show that the treaties adopted by IMO represent an extremely high standard and their acceptability can be shown by the fact that many of them are now almost universal in their coverage. SOLAS, for example, has been accepted by more than 162 countries and covers all but a fraction of the world merchant fleet.
IMO is a bargain. It is one of the smallest agencies in the United Nations system, both in terms of staff numbers (just 265 permanent staff) and budget. The IMO Assembly in 2015 approved a budget of £65,772,000 for 2016-2017, comprising an appropriation of £32,618,000 for 2016 (zero nominal growth) and an appropriation of £33,154,000 (zero real growth of 1.6%) for 2017.
This is less than half what it would cost to buy a medium sized oil tanker and represents only a fraction of the cost of the damage caused by an oil spill, for example (the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 has cost more than US$5 billion). If IMO is responsible for preventing just one oil tanker accident a year then it more than covers its cost.
The IMO budget is unique for another reason. Costs are shared between the 174 Member States primarily in proportion to the size of each one's fleet of merchant ships. The biggest fleets in the world are currently operated by Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands so they pay the biggest share of IMO's budget.
It is sometimes said that IMO should have some sort of authority to enforce its regulations. This seems to imply the creation of a team of inspectors and a fleet of patrol boats crewed by officials with the right to board any ships they suspected of contravening IMO regulations. In practice, the creation of such a force would be financially enormous - it would mean recruiting hundreds, probably thousands of people - and politically impossible: most Governments would never agree to allow ships flying their flag to be boarded in international waters and any attempt to introduce a system of penalties and punishments would be even more unacceptable.
The "IMO" police force would duplicate the work being done already by individual Governments and there is no guarantee that it would make a significant impact on safety and pollution, certainly in relation to the cost involved. IMO has however been given the authority to vet the training, examination and certification procedures of Contracting Parties to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), 1978. This was one of the most important changes made in the 1995 amendments to the Convention which entered into force in 1997. Governments have to provide relevant information to IMO's Maritime Safety Committee which judges whether or not the country concerned meets the requirements of the Convention. The result is a List of Confirmed Parties to STCW.
The mandatory audits under the IMO Member State Audit Scheme support the enhanced implementation of IMO instruments, as the scheme will provide Member States with an overview of how well they are carrying out their duties as flag, coastal and port States, under the relevant IMO treaties. The process will also feed into IMO’s extensive technical cooperation programme, to provide targeted assistance and capacity-building to States, as well as to the Organization’s regulatory process.
The main purpose of IMO is to adopt international treaties which are intended to apply to as many ships as possible. Unanimity of this kind inevitably takes time - it depends on the speed with which Governments act, as well as IMO - and it can only be achieved at all by ensuring that the regulations adopted are very widely acceptable and this can take time.
Parliamentary procedures to ratify the international treaties into national law can take time and this sometimes means that there are inevitably a number of years between adoption of a new treaty and its entry into force.
But IMO can act as rapidly as possible, in response to specific casualties or other circumstances.
Following the Costa Concordia incident, in January 2012, IMO agreed interim operational measures for passenger ships at its Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) meeting six months later, following this up by adopting amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) in 2013.
Drafting and agreeing new regulations can take time, but in December 2002, IMO adopted a whole suite of maritime security measures - largely in response to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States, little more than one year earlier.
In December 2003, IMO revised the rules on oil tanker single-hull phase-out, in response to the Prestige incident of 2002.
In another example, following the Estonia disaster of September 1994, in which a passenger ro-ro ferry sank with the loss of more than 900 lives, the then Secretary-General of IMO, Mr. William A. O'Neil, called for a complete review of ro-ro safety to be carried out by a special panel of experts. The panel's report was considered by the Maritime Safety Committee in May 1995 and amendments to SOLAS were adopted in November 1995. Special requirements concerning the crews of ro-ro passenger ships were included in amendments to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), 1978 that were adopted in July 1995. All of this was done before the final report into the disaster had been issued.
A further example is provided by the 1995 amendments to the STCW Convention as a whole. Although IMO had agreed some years ago to amend the Convention, the timetable originally envisaged would have meant that this would not have taken place before 1998 and the amendments themselves would not have entered into force until the next century. In May 1993 the Secretary-General urged the Maritime Safety Committee that this process be accelerated by using special consultants. The Committee agreed and the amendment procedure - which amounted to a complete re-writing of the Convention - was completed by July 1995. As a result the amendments entered into force in February 1997 - more than a year before the amendment conference would have been held under the original timetable.
IMO has improved its procedures over the years to ensure that changes can be introduced more quickly.
One of the most successful of these has been the process known as "tacit acceptance" which has been included in most technical conventions adopted by IMO since the early 1970s. The normal procedure for adopting amendments to an international treaty is by means of "explicit acceptance."
This means that the amendments enter into force so many months after being accepted by a specified number of Parties to the original Convention. The number can be as high as two-thirds and if the parent convention has been accepted by a large number of countries it could mean 80 or more of them having to ratify the amendment before it becomes international law.
Experience has shown that this can take decades to achieve - by which time the amendment itself is likely to be out of date. The tacit acceptance procedure means that amendments - which are nearly always adopted unanimously - enter into force on a set date unless they are specifically rejected by a specified number of countries.
Because of the care taken at IMO conferences to achieve consensus, very few rejections have ever been received and the entry into force period has been steadily reduced. In exceptional cases amendments can enter into force as little a year after being adopted. Apart from the speed, tacit acceptance also means that everyone involved knows exactly when an amendments will enter into force.
Although we can say yes to this question with some confidence it is difficult to compare shipping today with that of half a century ago because of the great changes that have taken place in the industry during that period. In the 1950s shipping was dominated by a handful of traditional maritime countries. They built the ships, operated them - and provided the goods that were carried on them.
Today most ships fly the flags of developing countries, their crews come from all over the world. Ships themselves have changed dramatically in size, speed and design and in addition economic factors mean that the average of ships today is much higher than it used to be. Despite these changes, safety standards around the world are generally good and have improved considerably since the late 1970s, when IMO treaties began to enter into force and the number of acceptances rose to record levels.
Statistics do not always tell the whole story. In the early 1980s, for example, a study carried out in the United Kingdom showed that the number of collisions between ships was much the same as it had been ten years before. But closer examination showed that the number of collisions had fallen dramatically in areas where IMO approved traffic separation schemes had been adopted - but had risen by the same number in areas where nothing had been done. Generally speaking, the rate of serious casualties has not greatly changed during the last ten years or so. But in view of the changes taking place in shipping - notably the steady ageing of the world fleet -this is an indication that IMO measures are having an impact.
As far as pollution is concerned, the indications are that there has been a remarkable improvement in the amount of pollution caused by ships. This is partly due to the tightening of controls through IMO conventions such as the MARPOL Convention and partly to the introduction of better methods of controlling the disposal of wastes. According to a study carried out by the United States National Academy of Sciences oil pollution from ships fell by about 60% during the 1980s, coinciding with the entry into force of MARPOL 73/78.
Whilst statistics have to be used with care, it should be noted that the incidence of large spills is relatively low; a very few large spills account for a high percentage of the oil spilt. Nevertheless, it is generally acknowledged that oil spills from shipping have decreased significantly over the last 30 years. Statistics from the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) bear this out.
All of this is encouraging. But IMO is aware that implementation of its instruments and continuing emphasis on maritime education and training are crucial in order to ensure safe, secure and efficient shipping on clean oceans.
Maritime security is an integral part of IMO's responsibilities. A comprehensive security regime for international shipping entered into force on 1 July 2004.
The mandatory security measures, adopted in December 2002, include a number of amendments to the SOLAS Convention, the most far-reaching of which enshrines the new International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS Code), which contains detailed security-related requirements for Governments, port authorities and shipping companies.
The measures are kept under review. The Facilitation and Maritime Safety Committees have initiated consideration of cyber security matters and are working on this matter in consultation with other United Nations bodies and relevant international organizations such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
IMO’s SUA Treaties were adopted in 1988 and underwent a comprehensive revision in 2005. The SUA Treaties aim to provide the international legal framework to ensure that appropriate action is taken against persons committing unlawful acts against ships (and fixed platforms on the continental shelf). These unlawful acts listed in the treaties include the seizure of ships by force; acts of violence against persons on board ships; and the placing of devices on board a ship which are likely to destroy or damage it.
IMO participates in the work of UN Security Council Counter Terrorism Committee’s Executive Directorate and the UN General Assembly’s Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force, through country assessment visits, capacity building coordination, and exchange of policy developments with other UN and partner entities involved in Border Management and Law Enforcement.
IMO has been addressing maritime piracy for some time and a series of measures, developed in co-operation with Member States and the shipping industry, have helped significantly reduce piracy in the hot spots of the world. In the late 1990s and the early 2000s the focus was on the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. More recently, since 2005, IMO has addressed piracy off the coast of Somalia, in the Gulf of Aden and the wider Indian Ocean, and is implementing a strategy for enhancing maritime security in West and Central Africa.
IMO has successfully implemented a multi-million dollar programme to support the Djibouti Code of Conduct concerning the Repression of Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, which was adopted in 2009.
The IMO Djibouti Code Trust Fund has funded numerous projects, coordinated by the multi-national Project Implementation Unit, to improve regional capacity to counter-piracy by developing enhanced regional cooperation and coordination, in the four pillars of training, capacity building, legal and information sharing.
A similar code of conduct has been adopted for West and Central Africa, where IMO is implementing a strategy for enhancing maritime security in in order to counter piracy, armed robbery against ships and other illicit activities and to support the development of a vibrant, sustainable maritime sector.
Elsewhere, IMO’s work to support regional coordination and cooperation in south east Asia, under a programme initiated in 1998, led to the adoption of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) in 2004.
The Technical Co-operation Programme is designed to assist Governments which lack the technical knowledge and resources that are needed to operate a shipping industry successfully. Any Member State can apply to IMO for assistance with specific projects.
The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) is an integrated communications system using satellite and terrestrial radiocommunications to ensure that no matter where a ship is in distress, aid can be dispatched. Under the GMDSS, all passenger ships and all cargo ships over 300 gross tonnage on international voyages have to carry specified satellite and radiocommunications equipment, for sending and receiving distress alerts and maritime safety information, and for general communications. The GMDSS became fully effective from 1 February 1999. It is currently undergoing a comprehensive review.
Texts of IMO Conventions can be purchased via the Publications section. Texts can also be found in national public libraries and in the libraries of maritime training institutes.
For legal purposes, only the authentic texts and certified copies of Conventions and amendments should be used. Please note that texts of IMO Conventions found on external websites may not be up to date. You should also contact your national maritime Administration.
Conventions ratified by a Government are adopted into national legislation and the national version will be available through the usual channels (official bulletins, etc).
Individuals wishing to raise an issue at IMO, or wanting information on implementation of IMO instruments in their country or on their vessel, should approach their national maritime administration or appropriate IGO or NGO.
To contact IMO Secretariat, see the Contact Us page.
See the Knowledge Centre section as well as the other sections of the website. The Site Index can help you find information on a specific subject while external search engines can also help.
While we will endeavour to answer specific queries we expect students to research thoroughly on the website before emailing IMO.