International Maritime Organisation: How to influence the regulatory framework?

This article aims to present the structure and functions of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) as well as the ways to change the regulatory framework and the relevant actors involved in the process.

What is the IMO?

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is a specialised agency of the United Nations (UN) responsible for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine and atmospheric pollution by ships. Its main role is to provide an effective, universally adopted and implemented regulatory framework for the shipping industry. It consists of 171 member states, 77 Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) and 65 Inter-governmental Organisations (IGOs). The IMO itself does not take decisions as an organisation. The decisions are taken by its Members, thus making the IMO a consensus organisation.

How is the IMO structured?

The IMO consists of an Assembly, a Council and five main Committees which are as follows: the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC), the Legal Committee (LC), the Technical Cooperation Committee (TCC) and the Facilitation Committee (FC). Besides, several Sub-Committees also support the work of the main committees. We will further discuss the MSC and the MEPC, as they are the ones concerned with countering marine pollution.

The MSC is the highest technical body of the IMO, and it consists of all Member States. It is concerned with the construction and equipment of vessels, manning from a safety standpoint, maritime safety procedures and requirements, log-books and navigational records and any other maritime safety matter within the scope of the IMO. The MEPC also consists of all member states and is concerned with prevention and control of pollution from ships. In particular, it focuses on adopting and amending conventions, such as MARPOL, regulations and measures to ensure their enforcement.

The MSC and the MEPC are assisted by several Sub-Committees such as the Sub-Committee on Human Element, Training and Watchkeeping (HTW), the Sub-Committee on Implementation of IMO Instruments (III), or the Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR). In turn all of these take submissions from relevant working groups and further them for approval to the main committees.


For having a complete picture of the IMO structure, please see the below image:



 Source:  'Topics At IMO | ClassNK - English'


How to get the regulatory framework changed?

The IMO regulatory framework needs improvement as the maritime industry is facing significant technological developments. A concrete example is the parameter method that is still used and promoted in the industry when checking compliance of ship diesel engines with the NOx emission standards. Meanwhile, the market provides monitoring systems that are more efficient in ensuring compliance with international standards. One of the reasons for using it may be that it is still legal under the MARPOL Convention. Another may be that the industry is more comfortable with it since law-making is a difficult, time-consuming process. But being legal does not mean it is efficient, thus it is up to NGOs and IGOs to make a change.

To make such a change an organisation can either apply for consultative status at the IMO or make  its voice heard through the working groups.

1. Consultative status

To apply for consultative status, an NGO or IGO must send an application to the IMO Council. The Council consists of 40 members elected by the Assembly, which meets only every 2 years. With such a status the organisation is expected to attend working groups, meetings and make submissions. If the organisation does not contribute, it loses its consultative status after two years. Taking this road, the organisation needs significant resources and must put a lot of work into maintaining its status, as losing it would cause significant damage to its credibility.

2. Working groups

Having your voice heard indirectly, through the working groups, may not be as effective as having a consultative status, but the result can be the same. It is a slower process as you do not have a direct influence on the IMO discussions, but it is the way to go if the organisation lacks the necessary resources. By searching the relevant working groups and building up influence within them, an organisation can, with time, make amendments to the regulatory framework of the IMO.

Concluding, the IMO is a transparent organisation with strict and clear guidelines. It does not take decisions itself but checks compliance with regulation, informs its members of the agendas and dates of meeting and advises them in case a mistake is made. However, changing the legal framework is a difficult and time-consuming process with a large-scale impact on the industry. In the end, the future of the marine industry is in the hands of those organisations that choose to work towards improving the law.