The IMO's general functions, as stipulated in its convention, are "consultative and advisory." It thus serves as a forum where members can consult and exchange information on maritime matters. It discusses and makes recommendations on any maritime question submitted by member states or by other bodies of the UN and advises other international bodies, including the UN itself, on maritime matters. Various other intergovernmental agencies deal with specialized maritime matters, such as atomic propulsion for ships (IAEA), health at sea (WHO), maritime labor standards (ILO), meteorology (WMO), oceanography (UNESCO), and ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications (ITU). One of the functions of the IMO is to help coordinate the work in these different fields.
The IMO is also authorized to convene international conferences when necessary and to draft international maritime conventions or agreements for adoption by governments. These conferences, and the conventions resulting from them, have been mainly concerned with two subjects of primary concern to the IMO: safety at sea and the prevention of marine pollution.
A conference convened by the IMO in 1960 adopted the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) to replace an earlier (1948) instrument. The convention covered a wide range of measures designed to improve the safety of shipping, including subdivision and stability; machinery and electrical installations; fire protection, detection, and extinction; lifesaving appliances; radiotelegraphy and radiotelephony; safety of navigation; carriage of grain; carriage of dangerous goods; and nuclear ships. A new convention, incorporating amendments to the 1960 agreement, was adopted in 1974 and entered into force in 1980. The SOLAS convention was updated with the SOLAS Protocol of 1978, which entered into force in 1981, and with the SOLAS Protocal of 1988, which entered into force in February 2000. In December 2002, amendments were adopted related to maritime security, which were scheduled to enter into force in July 2004.
In 1966, an IMO conference adopted the International Convention on Load Lines (LL), which sets limitations on the draught to which a ship may be loaded, an important consideration in its safety. The convention was updated by the LL Protocol of 1988, which entered into force in February 2000. The 1969 International Convention on Tonnage Measurement of Ships is designed to establish a uniform system for tonnage measurement.
Two conventions were adopted in 1972, following IMO conferences: the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, which concerns traffic separation schemes; and the Convention for Safe Containers, which provides uniform international regulations for maintaining a high level of safety in the carriage of containers by providing generally acceptable test procedures and related strength requirements.
The International Convention on the International Maritime Satellite Organization, adopted in 1976, concerns the use of space satellites for improved communication, enabling distress messages to be conveyed much more effectively than by conventional radio.
Three additional conventions concern safety at sea: the 1977 Torremolinos Convention for the Safety of Fishing Vessels, which applies to new fishing vessels of 24 m (79 ft) in length or longer; the 1978 Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watch-keeping for Seafarers, which aims to establish internationally acceptable minimum standards for crews; and the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, which is designed to improve existing arrangements for carrying out search and rescue operations following accidents at sea.
In September 1994, a roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) automobile ferry the Estonia capsized and quickly sank, killing over 900 people. Following the disaster, the IMO Maritime Safety Committee made major changes to the safety standards of ro-ro passenger ships, including amendments to the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.
The 1954 Oil Pollution Convention, for which the IMO became depositary in 1959, was the first major attempt by the maritime
Membership of IMO
(as of March 2002)
Antigua and Barbuda
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Congo, Democratic Republic of the
Iran, Islamic Republic of
Korea, Democratic People's Republic of
Korea, Republic of
Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
Moldova (Republic of)
Papua New Guinea
St. Kitts and Nevis
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
São Tomé and Príncipe
Syrian Arab Republic
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Trinidad and Tobago
United Arab Emirates
United Republic of Tanzania
nations to curb the impact of oil pollution. Following a conference convened by the IMO, the 1954 convention was amended in 1962, but it was the wreck of the oil tanker Torrey Canyon in March 1967 that fully alerted the world to the great dangers that the transport of oil posed to the marine environment. In 1969, two new conventions were adopted: the Convention on Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties, which gives states the right to intervene in incidents on the high seas that are likely to result in oil pollution; and the Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage, which is intended to ensure that adequate compensation is available to victims and which places the liability for the damage on the shipowner.
Two years later, a conference convened by the IMO led to the adoption of the Convention for the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage. The fund, with headquarters in London, is made up of contributions from oil importers. If an accident at sea results in pollution damage which exceeds the compensation available under the Civil Liability Convention, the fund is made available to pay an additional amount.
These three conventions all deal with the legal aspects of oil pollution, but the continuing boom in the transportation of oil showed that more work needed to be done on the technical side as well. The problem of oil pollution—not only as a result of accidents but also through normal tanker operations, especially the cleaning of cargo tanks—was so great in some areas that there was serious concern for the marine environment.
In 1973, a major conference was convened by the IMO to discuss the whole problem of marine pollution from ships. The result of the conference was the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, which deals not only with oil but also with other sources of pollution, including garbage, sewage, and chemicals. The convention greatly reduces the amount of oil that can be discharged into the sea by ships and bans such discharges completely in certain areas, such as the Black Sea and the Red Sea. It gives statutory support for such operational procedures as "load on top," which greatly reduces the amount of mixtures to be disposed of after tank cleaning, and for segregated ballast tanks.
A series of tanker accidents that occurred in the winter of 1976/77 led to demands for further action and to the convening of the Conference on Tanker Safety and Pollution Prevention in 1978. The most important measures adopted by the conference were incorporated in protocols to the 1974 Convention on Safety of Life at Sea and the 1973 Marine Pollution Convention.
The protocol to the 1973 convention strengthened the provisions regarding oil pollution and at the same time was modified to incorporate the parent convention. It was amended in 1984, and further amendments were made in 1985 to Annex II, which deals with pollution by noxious liquid substances carried in bulk.
In 1989, a conference of leading industrial nations in Paris called upon IMO to develop further measures to prevent oil pollution from ships. In 1990 IMO adopted the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation (OPRC). The convention provides a global framework for international cooperation in combating major incidents or threats of marine pollutions. Parties to the convention will be required to establish measures for dealing with pollution incidents and ships and operators of offshore oil units will be required to have oil pollution emergency plans. The convention also calls for the establishment of stockpiles of oil spill-combating equipment, the holding of oil spill-combating exercises, and the development of detailed plans for dealing with pollution incidents. It entered into force in May 1995.
In addition, through its Maritime Environment Protection Committee, the IMO has been working on various other projects designed to reduce the threat of oil pollution—for example, the Regional Oil-Combating Center, established in Malta in 1976 in conjunction with UNEP. The Mediterranean is particularly vulnerable to pollution, and a massive oil pollution incident there could be catastrophic. The center's purpose is to coordinate anti-pollution activities in the region and to help develop contingency plans that could be put into effect should a disaster occur. The IMO has also taken part in projects in other regions, including the Caribbean and West Africa.
In 1965, the IMO adopted the Convention on Facilitation of Maritime Traffic, the primary objectives of which are to prevent unnecessary delays in maritime traffic, to aid in cooperation between states, and to secure the highest practicable degree of uniformity in formalities and procedures.
In association with the IAEA and the European Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD, the IMO convened a conference in 1971, which adopted the Convention on Civil Liability in the Field of Maritime Carriage of Nuclear Matter.
The Convention on Carriage of Passengers and Their Luggage, adopted in 1974, establishes a regime of liability for damage suffered by passengers carried on seagoing vessels. It declares the carrier liable for damage or loss suffered by passengers if the incident is due to the fault or neglect of the carrier. The limit of liability was originally set at US$ 55,000 per carriage, but on 1 November 2002, a new protocol was adopted by the IMO, which would substantially raise that liability limit, to approximately US $325,000. It was due to enter into force 12 months after being accepted by 10 states.
Another convention on liability, the 1976 Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims, covers two types of claims: claims arising from loss of life or personal injury and claims arising from damage to ships, harbor works, or other property. To further clarify liability issues, in 1996 the IMO adopted the International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in connection with the Carriage of Hazardous and Noxious Substances by Sea (called the HNS Convention); as of 30 November 2002, it had not entered into force.
In addition to such conventions, whose requirements are mandatory for nations that ratify them, IMO has produced numerous codes, recommendations, and other instruments dealing with maritime questions. These do not have the legal power of conventions but can be used by governments as a basis for domestic legislation and for guidance. Some of the recommendations deal with bulk cargoes, safety of fishermen and fishing vessels, liquefied gases, dangerous goods, timber deck cargoes, mobile offshore drilling units, noise levels on ships, and nuclear merchant ships.
Certain codes dealing with the transport of bulk chemicals and liquefied gas, have been made mandatory through amendments to the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea.
In 1988, IMO adopted the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, which entered into force in 1992. The main purpose of the convention is to ensure that appropriate action is taken against persons committing unlawful acts against ships and fixed platforms engaged in the exploitation of offshore oil and gas.
The International Convention on Salvage was adopted in 1989, and entered into force in July 1996. The convention is intended to replace an instrument adopted in Brussels in 1910. That convention incorporated the "no cure, no pay" principle that has been in existence for many years and is the basis of most salvage operations today. However, it did not take compensation into account. The new convention seeks to remedy this by making provisions for "special compensation" to be paid to salvers when there is a threat to the environment.
While the adoption of conventions, codes, and recommendations has been the IMO's most important function, in recent years the agency has devoted increasing attention to securing the effective implementation of these measures throughout the world. As a result, the IMO's technical assistance activities have become more important, and in 1975 it established the Technical Cooperation Committee. The purpose of the technical assistance program is to help states, many of them developing countries, to ratify IMO conventions and to reach the standards contained in the conventions and other instruments.
Advisors and consultants employed by the IMO, in the field and at headquarters, deal with such matters as maritime safety administration, maritime legislation, marine pollution, training for deck and engineering personnel, the technical aspects of ports, and the carriage of dangerous goods.
Through its technical assistance program, the IMO is able to offer advice in these and other areas and to assist in the acquisition of equipment and the provision of fellowships. IMO relies almost exclusively on extra-budgetary sources for financing the International Technical Cooperation Program (TCP) and in the 1990s funding became a serious problem, in particular since the strategic reorientation of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), traditionally the core provider of TCP funding. For example, in 1990 approximately US $5.6 million was received from UNDP; by 1997 this support had dwindled to US $3.93 million. In 2000, IMO's funding partners for the TCP included international funding agencies, regional development banks, donor countries, recipient countries, the private sector (shipping and port industries), non-Governmental organizations involved in maritime and port activities, and individuals.
For the 2000–01 biennium, the total Technical Cooperation fund was approved at US $5,010,000. Of the total amount, 24% was allocated to global activities, 16% to regional coordination, 16% to projects in Africa, 13% to projects in Asia, 12% to projects in Latin America and the Caribbean, 10% to projects in Eastern Europe, and 9% to projects in the Arab and Mediterranean states.
The World Maritime University, in Malmö, Sweden, which was established under the auspices of the IMO and opened in 1983, provides advanced training for more than 100 maritime personnel annually—senior maritime teachers, surveyors, inspectors, technical managers, and administrators from developing countries. Funded by UNDP and by Sweden and other countries, the university offers two-year courses in maritime education and training, maritime safety administration, general maritime administration, and technical management of shipping companies, as well as field and other training. It is designed to help meet the urgent need of developing countries for high-level maritime personnel and to contribute to maintaining international standards for maritime safety and preventing pollution of the seas by ships. The university serves as the apex of an international system of training in the maritime field, collaborating with regional, subregional, and national maritime training institutions throughout the world. By 2002 the university had produced more than 1,400 graduates from over 130 countries.