This week my wife and I visited the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London. We are both members of the Anglo-Chilean Society where my wife is secretary and the former Vice Chairman. The Society has a connexion with the IMO in that last year a bust of Piloto Pardo, an important figure in the maritime history of Chile, was presented to the Chilean Embassy who then arranged for it to be on show at the IMO. Piloto Pardo was the Chilean naval officer who rescued Shackleton and all his men in an act of colossal bravery in 1916 but on our visit we learned much more than that. The IMO is the United Nation’s (UN) specialised agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and prevention of marine and atmospheric pollution by ships with 175 member states. The work of the IMO helps support the UN’s sustainable development goals shaping our world of the future.
80% of World Trade goes by sea. Each day around 50,000 merchant ships deliver the things people need and want from food to clothes, fuel, raw materials, electronics, medication and much more. IMO’s rules, which are decided by consensus of all its members, apply to ships regardless of where they operate, who owns them or which country they are registered in. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a market which is much more complicated than shipping. A ship may be owned by a Danish company having been built in the Republic of Korea, registered in Liberia or Panama, financed by a Swiss bank and crewed by people from many countries particularly the Philippines. This means that all of these countries have an interest in knowing that shipping is as safe as possible and if accidents do occur there is prompt response and compensation for those affected.
IMO's number one priority is keeping people at sea safe and secure. IMO measures cover the full lifecycle of ships from design to construction, equipment, crewing, operation and disposal. Its flagship Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) Convention, which arose from the Titanic disaster in 1912, deals with virtually every area of ship safety. Special codes, guidelines and other treaties also cover topics such as collisions, seafarer standards, search and rescue, maritime security and many more. Virtually all its members have signed up to these treaties covering 99.98 percent of tonnage shipped.
IMO strives to reduce shipping 's negative impact on the environment. In fact shipping is the most environment-friendly method for transporting large quantities of goods, but it must continue adjusting to global society's changing expectations on environmental performance. Strict IMO rules prevent or limit pollution from ships by oil, chemicals, sewage, rubbish harmful emissions and dumping waste – covered by IMO’s main conventions on prevention of pollution by ships, MARPOL, and the London Protocol.
Shipping forms the backbone of world trade transporting around 80% of global trade by volume. No other method of mass transportation is as cost-effective or fuel-efficient. The maritime sector, which includes shipping, ports and the people that operate them, plays a significant role in creating conditions for increased employment prosperity and stability to enhance economic development. Its Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL Convention) sets out internationally agreed measures to facilitate international maritime traffic. it is a powerful tool for streamlining administrative processes. There is a clear link between reducing red tape and competitiveness.
The IMO was formed shortly after the creation of the UN. Ever since it has been driving improvements in shipping and its record includes adopting more than 50 international instruments, conventions and protocols, and over 1000 codes and recommendations which together help make shipping safe, secure, clean and sustainable.
In 2015, 193 countries adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. As part of the UN family, IMO is actively working towards these goals. Most of the elements of the 2030 agenda will only be realised with a sustainable transport sector supporting world trade and facilitating global economy.
It presides over two distinguished global maritime training institutions and runs a programme for promoting the representation of women thereby helping to provide the maritime sector with the professionals it relies on. The World Maritime University is based in Malmö, Sweden where over 4600 students from 160 countries have graduated since 1983, many of whom now hold important positions in the maritime industry and beyond. It also runs the IMO International Maritime Law Institute located in Malta which is globally recognised as the training centre for specialists in International Maritime Law. it has produced over 780 graduates from 137 countries since 1988, many of whom now hold important positions in the maritime legal field at national level.
IMO’s Integrated Technical Cooperation Programme (ITCP) runs and supports a wide variety of national and regional training courses, seminars and advisory missions all over the world. These events provide expert advice on how to implement and enforce IMO rules and standards - providing valuable technical assistance to countries working to improve their maritime sectors.
IMO has a regional presence in selected developing regions which supports its input into international and regional development policies and provides active field level participation in the development, execution and coordination of IMO’s ITCP. The regional presence includes a regional coordinator in Côte d'Ivoire for West and Central Africa (Francophone), a Regional Coordinator in Ghana for West and Central Africa (Anglophone), a Regional Coordinator in Kenya for Eastern and Southern Africa, a Regional Coordinator in the Philippines for East Asia, a Regional Maritime Advisor in Trinidad and Tobago for the Caribbean, and an IMO Technical Cooperation Officer based in the Pacific Community Secretariat in Fiji for the Pacific islands.
IMO brings together countries at the regional level as well as assisting individual countries to embrace a multi-agency approach to maritime security and law enforcement. This involves assistance in legislation, training, capacity building and information sharing. IMO’s Global Maritime Security Capacity Building Programme supports countries in enhancing security measures to protect ships and ports from threats posed by terrorism, piracy and armed robbery, smuggling of arms, drugs and illicit goods as well as people trafficking.
IMO is the only UN agency that is fully self-funded with no funding coming from the central UN organisation. Instead, its funding comes from member states, donors such as major businesses, a variety of trusts and many other interested parties who value the work it does. What particularly struck me is the way in which virtually all countries in the world fully cooperate in this area with no politics, with the possible exception of environmental policies where different nations do have a different approach to the need to speed up climate change prevention. Its treaties are reached by consensus and no doubt negotiations take place between the different parties before this is reached, that is only normal, but the fact is that it is reached, implemented and executed by the individual member states with support from the IMO, not in a regulatory way but in an advisory way.
The building that we were in was purpose built and opened 40 years ago. It is in a wonderful location on the Albert Embankment with amazing views from its fourth floor across the River Thames to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. It has huge meeting rooms with an Assembly room which seats 900 and where council meetings are held every two years. There are equally spacious meeting areas for informal contacts over coffee and snacks and large committee rooms. We saw excellent videos which can be seen on YouTube.
I have many doubts about some of the UN operations and for example other UN bodies like the World Health Organisation seem to fail to avoid political influence as we saw with the scandal with the Chinese dominance of the World Health Organisation preventing it from proper investigation of COVID origins but there seems to be no such difficulties with the IMO which is doing excellent work that benefits all of us. I'm proud that it is headquartered in London, no doubt because we have such a long tradition in shipping and world trade.