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What is the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and what is their role

Originally the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization founded in 1948 as part of the United Nations but which did not begin working until 1959. The name was changed in 1982 to the IMO.

Its role is to formulate conventions and treaties to cover most aspects of maritime regulation. These only become effective when adopted by sufficient individual countries flagging a specified percentage of the world fleet as detailed in each convention text. At an early stage the IMO was given governance of earlier pre-existing treaties including SOLAS (safety of life at sea) dating back to 1914 and OILPOL.

Of the conventions inherited, SOLAS still exists but OILPOL has morphed into MARPOL and several more conventions and codes more have been added including STCW, GMDSS, ISM, ISPS, Ballast Water Management and Coatings. Many of the Codes are subsidiary to the main Conventions.

Through the conventions and codes, the IMO lays down technical and operational requirements for ships and their equipment. Under the STCW Convention, the IMO sets qualification standards for masters, officers and watch personnel and thus aims to improve the safe operation of ships.

The IMO’s work is done through two main committees the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) and Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) and seven associated sub-committees. In addition there are a small number of other committees such as the legal Committee, The Facilitation Committee (which deals with international trading protocols and documentation) and the Technical Co-operation Committee which deal with specific areas of IMO business.

The two main committees meet twice each year and the other committees and the sub-committees once. Any of the committees or sub-committees can establish working groups to develop or investigate specific areas of interest. These working groups may comprise of flag state representatives and consultative groups or special expertise bodies deemed appropriate. Their proposals will be debated further at appropriate meetings and will only become official IMO policy if accepted by meetings of the appropriate main committee.

How IMO policy is adopted and enforced

Flag states that are members of the IMO vote on adopting regulations at the committee stages before endorsement by the council. Some industry bodies and environmental NGOs are permitted to attend and to contribute to meetings and discussions but have no voting rights.

The IMO’s structure and voting rights along with the method by which conventions come into force does mean that instant decisions are not its hallmark. This has been the cause of much of the criticism that is levelled at it especially in recent years with regard to environmental regulation. However, while some countries and supra national bodies such as the EU may find this frustrating, it is the governments of the member nations that do not vote in favour of adopting regulations or ratifying conventions that should really be the focus of criticism.

Although the IMO is responsible for developing and approving the international regulation of shipping it has no policing or enforcement role. Those obligations fall to flag states in the first instance but because some states – and shipowners – are cavalier in enforcing and applying the rules, in the 1980s the concept of Port State Control (PSC) was established allowing port states to take appropriate action in ensuring the rules are followed.

PSC activities can be determined by individual states but the structure that has developed mostly involves groups of neighbouring states establishing regional groupings with policies and enforcement determined among them. Among the groupings that have been established the Paris MoU and the Tokyo MoU are the most well known but there are several others which between the cover most of the world’s coast lines and ports. Several of them have websites where details of policies and activities are made public.