International Maritime Organization (IMO): Definition and Purpose

What Is the International Maritime Organization (IMO)?

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations that is responsible for measures to improve the safety and security of international shipping and prevent marine pollution from ships.

The IMO sets standards for the safety and security of international shipping. It oversees every aspect of worldwide shipping regulations, including legal issues, shipbuilding, and cargo size.

Key Takeaways

  • The International Maritime Organization is an agency tasked with improving the security and safety of international shipping.
  • One of its key duties is to devise strategies and measures to keep the waterways clean by preventing marine pollution from ships.
  • The IMO’s governing body, the Assembly, meets every two years, with the first meeting in 1959. 
  • The IMO is not responsible for enforcing its policies. When a government accepts an IMO policy, that policy becomes a national law that is the government's responsibility to enforce.
  • Funding for the IMO comes from contributions by member states, as well as voluntary donations and commercial activities.

Understanding the International Maritime Organization (IMO)

The International Maritime Organization's objectives can be best summed up by its slogan—"Safe, secure, and efficient shipping on clean oceans." Basically, the IMO sets policy for international shipping and sets regulations on safety, security, and environmental best practices.

The IMO is also involved in legal issues matters pertaining to international shipping, such as liability and compensation matters, and facilitating of international maritime traffic. The Assembly, the IMO's governing body, meets every two years to address issues in international shipping, and looking at the organization's budget.

To break down the workload and to ensure each area of concern of the IMO is getting the attention it deserves, there are five committees tasked with making policies and developing, going over, and overhauling rules and guidelines. Those committees include the Technical Co-operation Committee, the Maritime Safety Committee, the Marine Environmental Protection Committee, the Legal Committee, and the Facilitation Committee. Furthermore, there are seven sub-committees working under these committees.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) are some of the vital International Maritime Organization treaties.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea is regarded as the most crucial treaty regarding safety at sea. The first draft of it was adopted in 1914 following the sinking of the Titanic, before the creation of the IMO.

Member States and Organizations of the International Maritime Organization (IMO)

The IMO has 175 member states, accounting for most of the membership of the United Nations. In addition, there are three associate members that are not considered states: Hong Kong, Macao, and the Faroe Islands.

In addition, the IMO regularly interacts with Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and intergovernmental organizations on maritime policy. There are 66 intergovernmental organizations with observer status in the IMO, including the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States, and OPEC. There are also 85 NGOs with consultative status, most of them associated with the maritime or shipping industries.

International Maritime Organization (IMO) Structure

The governance structures of the IMO consist of the Assembly, representing the member states, and a Council elected by the members at two-year intervals. The council acts as an executive body and performs all the responsibilities of the Assembly when it is not in session. The Council is also responsible for appointing the secretary-general of the organization.

In addition, there are several committees and sub-committees responsible for various aspects of maritime regulation. For example, the Marine Safety Committee is responsible for setting the rules of navigation, construction, and transportation to reduce hazards on the seas. The Marine Environmental Protection Committee considers matters relating to pollution, and the Legal Committee is responsible for questions of maritime law.

Strategic Plan of the International Maritime Organization (IMO)

Every six years, the assembly of the IMO established a strategic plan describing the organization's mission and priorities. The current strategic plan, enacted in 2018, is "to promote safe, secure, environmentally sound, efficient and sustainable shipping through cooperation."

The plan also sets out the strategic direction of the IMO and establishes performance indicators to measure the success of the organization's work. In addition to the traditional goals relating to facilitating trade and ocean governance, the current strategic plan also sets the goal of responding to climate change. In its vision statement, the IMO is pledged to support member states in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Special Considerations 

It's important to note that the IMO does not implement or enforce policies. The IMO was created to adopt policy, not enforce it. When a government accepts an IMO convention, those policies become national laws that the government is responsible for enforcing.

The IMO developed a program to audit compliance with maritime policies, effective as of January 2016. However, there are no countermeasure available if a country does not enforce the policies set by the IMO. Instead, the IMO provides feedback and advice on a country's current performance.

Beyond shipping, an IMO is also an independent marketing organization. This is an organization that works with insurance companies to market its products. The duties of an IMO can include other marketing tasks, such as distribution. 

What Is the Purpose of the International Maritime Organization (IMO)?

The purpose of the IMO is to establish intergovernmental regulations concerning maritime trade, safe shipping, and access to the seas. In addition, it also sets the rules for preventing ocean pollution and accidents.

How Many Countries Are in the International Maritime Organization (IMO)?

There are 175 member states of the IMO, as well as three associate members that are not considered states.

Who Funds the International Maritime Organization (IMO)?

Funding for the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is provided by contributions from member states, as well as through various trusts, donations, and partnership agreements. The organization also makes money from certain commercial activities, such as selling books or hosting conferences.

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  3. International Maritime Organization. "List of IMO Conventions."

  4. International Maritime Organization. "International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea."

  5. International Maritime Organization. "Member States."

  6. International Maritime Organization. "Intergovernmental Organizations Which Have Concluded Agreements of Cooperation with IMO."

  7. International Maritime Organization. "Non-Governmental International Organizations Which Have Been Granted Consultative Status With IMO."

  8. International Maritime Organization. "Strategic Plan for the Organization."

  9. International Maritime Organization. "Member State Audit Scheme."

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