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Shipping is the most efficient means of moving cargo worldwide, with ships carrying more than 90% of global trade by water.  As ships transit through many jurisdictions and can cross several boundaries in one voyage, the international governance of shipping is essential for industry to maintain a degree of consistency and global acceptance.


The ownership and management chain surrounding any ship can embrace many countries and ships spend their economic life moving between different jurisdictions, often far from the country of registry. There is therefore a need for international standards to regulate shipping which can be adopted and accepted by all. The Titanic disaster of 1912 spawned the first international safety of life at sea - SOLAS - convention, still the most important treaty addressing maritime safety.

The Convention establishing the International Maritime Organization (IMO) was adopted in Geneva in 1948 and IMO first met in 1959. IMO's main task has been to develop and maintain a comprehensive regulatory framework for shipping and its remit today includes safety, environmental concerns, legal matters, technical co-operation, maritime security and the efficiency of shipping.


IMO Headquarters, London

A specialized agency of the United Nations with 170 Member States and three Associate Members, IMO is based in London in the United Kingdom with around 300 international staff.

IMO's specialized committees and sub-committees are the focus for the technical work to update existing legislation or develop and adopt new regulations, with meetings attended by maritime experts from Member Governments, together with those from interested intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.

The result is a comprehensive body of international conventions, supported by hundreds of recommendations governing every facet of shipping including:

Marpol Solas SCTW

Measures aimed at the prevention of accidents, including standards for ship design, construction, equipment, operation and manning. Key treaties include SOLAS, the MARPOL convention for the prevention of pollution by ships and the STCW convention on standards of training for seafarers.

Measures which recognize that accidents do happen, including rules concerning distress and safety communications, the International Convention on Search and Rescue and the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation.

Conventions which establish compensation and liability regimes - including the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage, the convention establishing the International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage and the Athens Convention covering liability and compensation for passengers at sea.

Inspection and monitoring of compliance are the responsibility of member States, but the adoption of a Voluntary IMO Member State Audit Scheme is playing a key role in enhancing implementation of IMO standards. The first audits under the Voluntary IMO Member State Audit Scheme were completed at the end of 2006 but the IMO Assembly has agreed a program to make this scheme mandatory, with the entry into force of the mandatory audit scheme likely to be in 2015.

IMO has an extensive technical co-operation program, which identifies needs among resource challenged Members and matches them to assistance, such as training and governance. IMO has founded three advanced level maritime educational institutes in Malmö, Malta and Genoa.

Today, we live in a society which is supported by a global economy, which simply could not function if it were not for shipping. IMO plays a key role in ensuring that lives at sea are not put at risk and that the marine environment is not polluted by shipping as summed up in IMO's mission statement: Safe, Secure and Efficient Shipping on Clean Oceans

IMO Frequently Asked Questions

1. What does IMO do?

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 texts of conventions, codes and other instruments adopted by IMO can be purchased from IMO Publications.

2. Why Do We Need an International Organization to Look After Shipping?

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.

3. How Does IMO implement Legislation?

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 a part of its own national law and to enforce it just like any other law.

The most important IMO conventions contain provisions for Governments to inspect foreign ships that visit their ports to ensure that they meet IMO standards. If they do not they can be detained until repairs are carried out. Experience has shown that this works best if countries join together to form regional Port State Control organizations.

IMO has encouraged this process and agreements have been signed covering 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)).

mou map 

Signatories to the:

Paris MOU (blue), Tokyo MOU (red), Indian Ocean MOU (green), Mediterranean MOU (dark green), Acuerdo Latino (yellow), Caribbean MOU (olive), Abuja MOU (dark red), Black Sea MOU (cyan), Riyadh MOU (navy).

IMO also has an extensive technical co-operation program which concentrates on improving the ability of developing countries to help themselves. It concentrates on developing human resources through maritime training and similar activities.

4. What is the Role of Classification Societies?

All ships must be surveyed in order to be issued with trading certificates which establish their seaworthiness, type of ship, and suitability for the intended purpose. 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.


The International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) is a Non-Governmental Organization which was granted Consultative Status with IMO in 1969.

5. What About Pollution?

In 1954 a treaty was adopted dealing with oil pollution from ships. IMO assumed 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 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 IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) deals with all issues relating to marine environment protection as it relates to shipping.

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 all of 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 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 Program is hugely important in ensuring Member States have the resources and expertise to implement IMO conventions relating to marine pollution prevention. Examples of programs include: sensitivity mapping to identify which parts of a coastline are particularly vulnerable; training in oil spill response and contingency planning; ballast water management issues; and the Marine Electronic Highway in the Malacca Strait.

MalaccaStrait MEH

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", if not the greenest, transportation mode.

6. What about climate change?

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. The Marine Environment Protection Committee has developed energy efficiency measures, both for existing and new ships, to enable a comprehensive package of technical and operational measures to be agreed.


North American Emissions Control Area

7. Does IMO Have to Settle for the Lowest Common Denominator?

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. Governments that did not want high standards would not bother to join IMO. The Governments that do join IMO do so because they support the Organization's aims. 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 156 countries and covers all but a fraction of the world merchant fleet.

8. How Much Does IMO Cost?

IMO is one of the smallest agencies in the United Nations system, both in terms of staff numbers (just 300 permanent staff) and budget. The total budget for the 2012-2013 biennium is £62,206,200, comprising an appropriation of £30,520,200 for 2012 and an appropriation of £31,686,000 for 2013.

Costs are shared between the 170 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 and Liberia and so they pay the biggest share of IMO's budget.

9. Should IMO Have Some Sort of Police Function?

An "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 on 1 February 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.

10. What is the Voluntary IMO Member State Audit Scheme?

IMO has now adopted the Voluntary IMO Member State Audit Scheme. 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. The first audits under the Voluntary IMO Member State Audit Scheme were completed at the end of 2006 but the IMO Assembly has agreed a program to make this scheme mandatory, with the entry into force of the mandatory audit scheme likely to be in 2015.

11. Why is IMO so Slow?

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.

But when speed is necessary IMO can act very rapidly indeed. An example is the adoption in December 2002 of security measures - largely in response to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States.

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 the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), 1974 were adopted in November. 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 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 unanimity 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. Under the old system you never knew until the final acceptance was actually deposited with IMO.

12. Have Shipping Safety and the Marine Environment Improved Because of IMO?

Although we can say yes to this question with some confidence it is difficult to compare shipping today with that of thirty or forty years 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, manned 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. Doubts have been expressed about the ability of some of these countries to maintain and operate ships to the high standards laid down in IMO regulations. 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, indicating that the introduction of traffic separation schemes and other measures had not had much impact. But closer examination showed that the number of collisions had fallen dramatically in areas where IMO approved schemes had been adopted - but had risen by the same number in areas where nothing had been done.


more oil moving – far less spills

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 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, as modified by the Protocol of 1978 relating thereto (MARPOL 73/78) 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.

It is generally acknowledged that oil spills from shipping have decreased significantly over the last 30 years.

13. What About Maritime Security?

Maritime security is now 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 1974 Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS), 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.

  • improve communications between States;
  • enhance the capabilities of States in the region to deter, arrest and prosecute pirates;
  • improve States' maritime situational awareness; and
  • enhance the capabilities of local coast guards.

IMO has also revised the guidance on measures to take to deter piracy, to include region-specific guidance based on industry best management practice.

IMO is also seeking additional support from States able to provide warships and maritime patrol aircraft for the Gulf of Aden and Western Indian Ocean area and is focusing on bringing the recently opened Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres in Mombasa and Dar es Salaam into the counter piracy role.

In the longer term, IMO is seeking to promote international action to stabilize the situation in Somalia through the UN Security Council, the UN Political Office for Somalia, the UN Development Program, the Contact Group on Piracy off Somalia, and others.

In the case of the situation off Somalia, developments ashore are probably the only way to resolve this problem in the long term.

In the meantime, it is essential to maintain support from States able to provide warships and maritime patrol aircraft until the political situation is resolved.