International Maritime Organization & Conventions

The increasing maritime safety and security concerns led to the demand for creation of a permanent international maritime body by the shipping nations in the last decade of the nineteenth century. It could become a reality only in 1948, when an international conference in Switzerland adopted a convention to create the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO). In 1958, this Convention entered into force leading to the creation of the International Maritime Organization (IMO).  But prior to creation of IMO, several important international conventions such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil (OILPOL, 1954) had already been established to promote safe and secure shipping. IMO was made responsible for developing new conventions as well as keeping these existing conventions up to date by making necessary amendments.

The purposes of IMO, as mentioned in Article 1(a) of the Convention, are “to provide machinery for cooperation among governments in the field of governmental regulation and practices relating to technical matters of all kinds affecting shipping engaged in international trade; to encourage and facilitate the general adoption of the highest practicable standards in matters concerning maritime safety, efficiency of navigation and prevention and control of marine pollution from ships. Today, the primary roles of IMO are to promote safe, secure, environmentally sound, efficient and sustainable shipping through cooperation.

Since its creation, IMO has been busy in formulating and promoting new conventions and updating existing conventions related to maritime safety and pollutions. Majority of conventions adopted by IMO usually fall into three main categories - maritime safety, prevention of marine pollution, and liability and compensation, especially in relation to damage caused by pollution. There are other minor conventions dealing with facilitation, tonnage measurement, unlawful acts against shipping and salvage etc. At present, IMO is responsible for implementing and promoting over fifty international conventions and agreements related to safety, pollution and other maritime issues. These international regulations must be followed by all shipping nations to improve maritime safety and environment.

Important Maritime Conventions


The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) in its successive forms is regarded as the most important treaty dealing with maritime safety. The first version of SOLAS was adopted as early as in 1914 in response to the famous Titanic disaster in 1912. The second and third versions of the treaty were introduced in 1929 and 1948 respectively. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted a new version of SOLAS in 1960 with the intention to keep the convention up to date by periodic amendments. But the amendment procedures appeared to be slow taking several years. As a result, IMO introduced a new version of SOLAS in 1974 to include the tacit acceptance procedure - which provides that an amendment shall enter into force on a specified date unless, before that date, objections to the amendment are received from an agreed number of Parties. The new procedure has led to numerous amendments in SOLAS since 1974. The Convention in force today is often referred to as SOLAS, 1974, as amended.


The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) is the most important international regulation for preventing pollution of the marine environment by oil from ships due to accidental or operational reasons. MARPOL was adopted by IMO in 1973, which incorporated much of OILPOL 1954 and its amendments into Annex I. Annex I of MARPOL contains most important regulations for preventing pollution by oil from ships. But before its implementation, a series of tanker accidents occurred in 1976-77, leading to the formulation of the 1978 MARPOL Protocol that fully absorbed the 1973 Convention. The combined version, referred to as (MARPOL 73/78), was finally implemented in October 1983. Since then, MARPOL has been updated through the years.


The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) was adopted by IMO in July 1978. As the name suggests, the Convention has been created to set training and certification standard for masters, officers, and watch personnel on seagoing merchant ships. The Convention came into effect in 1984 after the ratification by pre-requisite number of countries. At the behest of US Coast Guard, IMO had to make a major amendment to STCW Convention in 1995.

Hague-Visby Rules

Drafted at the 1924 International Convention at Brussels, Hague-Visby Rules are basically a set of rules governing the international carriage of goods by seagoing merchant ships. The official title of the Convention was "International Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules of Law relating to Bills of Lading”. These rules were created as a result of growing dissatisfaction among shippers and their insurers due to arbitrary restrictions imposed by carriers to limit their liability in case of damage or loss of cargo. The Hague rules primarily aimed to solve this problem by establishing standard basic obligations and responsibilities of the carrier and shipper for goods covered under a bill of lading.

Hamburg Rules

Adopted in March 1978 at Hamburg, the Hamburg Rules are basically improved version of Hague-Visby rules governing the international shipment of goods. It was an attempt to create a level playing field for developing countries in the area of international shipments of goods. The developing countries believed that Hague Rules were colonial in nature, and were created for the sole benefit of colonial maritime nations. They demanded for a full re-examination of these Rules to address the existing imbalances between carrier and shipper interests. The Convention came into effect in November 1992 when pre-requisite number of countries (which was twenty) ratified the Convention. As of May 2011, a total of 34 nations had ratified the convention. However, none of developed nations including the USA, UK, and Russia have ratified the Convention yet.