THE INTERNATIONAL MARITIME ORGANIZATION
The International Maritime Organization (IMO), known as the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO) until 1982, is a specialised agency of the United Nations responsible for regulating shipping. The IMO, headquartered in London, was established following agreement at a UN conference held in Geneva in 1948 and came into existence ten years later, meeting for the first time in 1959.
As a specialised agency of the United Nations, IMO is the global standard-setting authority for the safety, security and environmental performance of international shipping. Its main role is to create a regulatory framework for the shipping industry that is fair and effective, universally adopted and universally implemented.
Its role is to create a level playing-field so that ship operators cannot address their financial issues by simply cutting corners and compromising on safety, security and environmental performance. This approach also encourages innovation and efficiency.
Shipping is a truly international industry, and it can only operate effectively if the regulations and standards are themselves agreed, adopted and implemented on an international basis. And IMO is the forum at which this process takes place.
THE INTERNATIONAL MARITIME ORGANIZATION
It has always been recognised that the best way of improving safety at sea is by developing international regulations that are followed by all shipping nations. From the mid-19th century onwards, a number of such treaties were adopted. Several countries proposed that a permanent international body should be established to promote maritime safety more effectively, but it was not until the establishment of the United Nations itself that these hopes were realised. In 1948, an international conference in Geneva adopted a convention formally establishing the International Maritime Organization (the original name was the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization, or IMCO, but the name was changed in 1982 to IMO). The IMO Convention entered into force in 1958 and the new Organization met for the first time the following year.
The purposes of the Organization, as summarised by Article 1(a) of the Convention, are “to provide machinery for cooperation among Governments in the field of governmental regulation and practices relating to technical matters of all kinds affecting shipping engaged in international trade; to encourage and facilitate the general adoption of the highest practicable standards in matters concerning maritime safety, efficiency of navigation and prevention and control of marine pollution from ships”. The Organization is also empowered to deal with administrative and legal matters related to these purposes.
IMO’s first task was to adopt a new version of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the most important of all treaties dealing with maritime safety. This was achieved in 1960 and IMO then turned its attention to such matters as the facilitation of international maritime traffic, load lines and the carriage of dangerous goods, while the system of measuring the tonnage of ships was revised.
Shipping – which transports about ninety per cent of global trade – is, statistically, the least environmentally damaging mode of transport, when its productive value is taken into consideration.
Although safety was and remains IMO’s most important responsibility, a new problem began to emerge: pollution. The growth in the amount of oil being transported by sea and in the size of oil tankers was of particular concern and the Torrey Canyon disaster of 1967, in which one hundred and twenty thousand tons of oil was spilled, demonstrated the scale of the problem.
During the next few years IMO introduced a series of measures designed to prevent tanker accidents and to minimise their consequences. It also tackled the environmental threat caused by routine operations such as the cleaning of oil cargo tanks and the disposal of engine room wastes; in tonnage terms a bigger menace than accidental pollution.
The most important of all these measures was the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, as modified by the Protocol of 1978. It covers not only accidental and operational oil pollution but also pollution by chemicals, goods in packaged form, sewage, garbage and air pollution.
IMO was also given the task of establishing a system for providing compensation to those who had suffered financially as a result of pollution. Two treaties were adopted, in 1969 and 1971, which enabled victims of oil pollution to obtain compensation much more simply and quickly than had been possible before. Both treaties were amended in 1992, and again in 2000, to increase the limits of compensation payable to victims of pollution. A number of other legal conventions have been developed since, most of which concern liability and compensation issues.
IMO is primarily concerned with the safety of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution, but the Organization has also introduced regulations covering liability and compensation for damage, such as pollution, caused by ships. The Torrey Canyon disaster of 1967, which led to an intensification of IMO’s technical work in preventing pollution, was also the catalyst for work on liability and compensation. An ad hoc Legal Committee was established to deal with the legal issues raised by the world’s first major tanker disaster and the Committee soon became a permanent subsidiary organ of the IMO Council, meeting twice a year to deal with any legal issues raised at IMO.
The Legal Committee is empowered to deal with any legal matters within the scope of the Organization. The Committee consists of all Member States of IMO. It was established in 1967 as a subsidiary body to deal with legal questions which arose in the aftermath of the Torrey Canyon disaster. The Legal Committee is also empowered to perform any duties within its scope which may be assigned by or under any other international instrument and accepted by the Organization.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea covers some issues not regulated under IMO treaty instruments: for example, the jurisdictional power of the coastal State.
International shipping transports more than eighty per cent of global trade to peoples and communities all over the world. Shipping is the most efficient and cost-effective method of international transportation for most goods; it provides a dependable, low-cost means of transporting goods globally, facilitating commerce and helping to create prosperity among nations and peoples. The world relies on a safe, secure and efficient international shipping industry – and this is provided by the regulatory framework developed and maintained by IMO.