IMO | Slow ratification of key maritime conventions threatens safety and security

Richard Mead | LLOYD’S LIST

ON AVERAGE, it is taking seven and a half years for international shipping legislation to enter into force following adoption by a government. While this glacial pace is by no means the slowest on the international stage, the figure has been hiding a multitude of sins when it comes to the performance of certain governments.

Of the 169 member states of the International Maritime Organization, 49 governments have only acceded to 10 or fewer of the 30 key conventions and protocols adopted by the UN agency. This is not simply a question of a problematic minority — in total, 60% of all IMO member states have acceded to fewer than half of the same key conventions and protocols.

According to the combined industry forces of the International Chamber of Shipping, BIMCO, Intertanko and Intercargo, this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed — quickly.

In a strongly worded joint submission to the IMO’s Flag State Implementation sub-committee, the industry groups argued that lethargic governments were risking safety and security with their lack of action, as well as risking alternative regional rule-making.

They also pointed out that pushing for new legislation to address current issues and simultaneously snubbing existing conventions that have already been adopted was undermining the IMO and its role as the primary regulatory body.

While governments are under no obligation to ratify adopted conventions or protocols, the industry groups are hoping to spur action at the IMO and tackle this long-standing problem.

Their damning analysis of governments’ inaction reportedly was received “positively” by IMO member state representatives at the FSI meeting earlier this month.

However, it remains to be seen how much influence representatives of the same governments that are currently failing to ratify can have, given that they are already well aware of their own shortcomings and in most cases are powerless to speed up what is effectively a domestic political process.

It was pointed out at the FSI meeting that this remains an “ongoing issue” that has been brought to the committee’s attention on a number of occasions, with little positive outcome to report.

The apparent lack of progress does not stem from within the IMO itself, however. The body’s Technical Co-operation Committee has been striving for many years to encourage ratification by providing support in a number of practical guises.

Targeted regional campaigns are regularly mounted and IMO secretary-general Efthimios Mitropoulos is well known for his persuasive and repeated attempts to cajole ratifications from government representatives at every opportunity.

But despite the best efforts of the IMO secretariat and a vocal industry campaign targeting flag state performance, the statistics remain consistently disappointing.

When the Round Table of industry associations analysed the 30 key conventions and protocols selected for their study, they found 16 had taken more than five years from their date of adoption to entry into force, with the average being more than seven and a half years. Seven of the 30 conventions and protocols have not entered into force at all.

A number of the regulations have been acceded to by such a low number of member states, representing a minimal percentage of world tonnage, that their overall effectiveness is negligible.

These are not minor amendments or administrative updates that are being ignored, but serious international regulations designed explicitly to make shipping a safer, more secure and efficient industry by the same governments now ignoring them.

The 2005 protocol to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, for example, was drafted specifically to tackle the growing threat of piracy and armed robbery.

While governments have been vocal in their calls for action against the piracy scourge affecting the industry, it is worth noting that this protocol currently boasts just 11 signature states, covering 6.3% of the world fleet.

Given the current political outcry over the pollution damage from oil spills, it is also worth recalling just how prepared governments have been to adopt their own previous attempts to tackle the threat of accidental marine pollution.

The 1990 International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation and the subsequent 2000 Hazardous and Noxious Substances protocol (OPRC-HNS Protocol) both aimed to provide a global framework for international co-operation in combating major incidents or threats of marine pollution.

While the 20-year-old OPRC 90 convention is only missing signatures from around one third of IMO member states, the HNS protocol currently covers just 36% of the world fleet.

The 1996 International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in Connection with the Carriage of Hazardous and Noxious Substances by Sea, meanwhile, has signatures from 14 of the 169 IMO member states and covers just under 14% of global shipping.

For industry observers within the IMO system, acutely aware that low flag state performance is now a factor in port state targeting of ships, the lack of accession to key IMO instruments by flag states is increasingly frustrating.

“It seems the only stakeholders who do not get the message are the flag states,” said International Transport Workers’ Federation seafarers section assistant secretary John Bainbridge.

“I for one have become increasingly sceptical in spending long hours introducing amended conventions, such as the SUA 2005, to help protect the seafarer, only to be ignored by most states (including the US), or redrafting guidance on investigating acts of piracy that no flag state carries out

“As for the amendment to the minimum manning resolution to consider security duties, not one flag state has even considered it.”

While it is perhaps understandable that very recent conventions and protocols have not yet been widely acceded to, the majority of those in question were adopted well over five years ago.

As far as the HNS Convention 1996 and the Ballast Water Management Convention 2004 are concerned, problems identified with regard to their technical feasibility cannot be ignored when considering the reasons behind such a low percentage of accession. There is, however, no core problem that can be blamed for this problem.

As the Round Table paper makes clear, there may be a number of reasons for the low level of accession by member states that can be largely filed under “local political considerations” and practical difficulties relating to implementation, particularly due to lack of capacity in less developed countries.

Nevertheless, as the paper points out: “The IMO developed and adopted these instruments because of a deemed need for regulation. It is paradoxical that only a limited percentage of world tonnage is covered by them.”

According to the IMO, difficulties arise because the conventions have to go through a legislative and parliamentary procedure in each country and the speed of accession is largely a question of how much priority they are given domestically.

“Often it is simply that the IMO is not a hot priority at the time and that is something we have no control over,” explained an IMO spokeswoman.

“States do not have an obligation to ratify as such — we encourage them. But it is not a mandatory requirement as an IMO member. You don’t not become a member because you haven’t ratified a specific number of conventions.”

The industry co-sponsors of the paper have proposed a process of mapping reasons for lack of accession could help prompt some positive movement on the issue. The topic is scheduled to be discussed in more detail at the next FSI meeting in 2011 and, according to BIMCO, work is under way for a second industry submission to push for a more concrete action plan.

The industry groups have long argued that ratification of international maritime conventions does not necessarily confirm whether the provisions of these global instruments are being properly enforced. But as a bare minimum, they argue that flag states should now at least be able to provide good reason for not having ratified any of the instruments.

A comprehensive summary of the status of all IMO conventions and protocols is available at, along with a full description of the process conventions must go through before they enter into force. The International Chamber of Shipping has also published its own assessment of individual Flag State Performance in a table available at

Table 1: The IMO’s top 10 outcast conventions and protocols

Despite the significant time and effort poured into the creation of some of the IMO’s conventions and protocols, accession can be a slow business. Out of the IMO’s 169 member states barely a fraction have managed to enact the below selection of widely ignored legislative work.
Instrument Date of entry into force No of contracting states % world tonnage Why governments saw fit to waste their time
Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks, 2007 (NAIROBI WRC) Not yet in force 1 0.07 This convention was intended to provides the legal basis for states to remove, or have removed, shipwrecks that may have the potential to affect adversely the safety of lives, goods and property at sea, as well as the marine environment.
Athens Convention relating to the Carriage of Passengers and their Luggage by Sea (PAL), 2002 Protocol Not yet in force 4 0.17 The Protocol introduces compulsory insurance to cover passengers on ships and raises the limits of liability.
International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Fishing Vessel Personnel (STCW-F), 1995 Not yet in force 14 5.49 The Convention was the first attempt to make standards of safety for crews of fishing vessels mandatory internationally.It was originally intended that requirements for crews on fishing vessels should be developed as a Protocol to the main STCW Convention, but after careful consideration it was agreed that it would be better to adopt a completely separate Convention. Presumably a decision many are now regretting.
International Convention for Safe Containers (CSC) 1993 amendments Not yet in force 9 6.18 These amendments concern the information contained on the CSC Approval plate and also amend some of the test loads and testing procedures required by the Convention. Apparently only nine governments could see the point.
Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, 2005 Protocol July 28, 2010 11 6.28 Thisadditional protocol broadens the range of offences covered by the SUA Convention to include the seizure of ships by force; acts of violence against persons on board ships; and the placing of devices on board a ship which are likely to destroy or damage it.
Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, 2005 July 28, 2010 13 6.4 The 2005 Protocol to the SUA Convention tackles the use of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons and acts of terrorism at sea.
Stockholm Agreement 1996 April 1, 1997 11 8.59 This was an attempt to introduce an enhanced stability and safety standard beyond the requirements of Solas 90 pertaining to ro-ro passenger ships operating in northwest Europe.
International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in Connection with the Carriage of Hazardous and Noxious Substances by Sea (HNS), 1996 Not yet in force 14 13.61 The Convention should make it possible for up to 250m SDR (about $320m) to be paid out in compensation to victims of accidents involving HNS, such as chemicals. The Protocol of 2010 to the HNS Convention should address the practical problems that have prevented many states from ratifying the original Convention.
Torremolinos protocol of 1993 relating to the Torremolinos International Convention for the Safety of Fishing Vessels, 1977 Not yet in force 17 19.78 The original Convention has been superseded by the 1993 Protocol. The Protocol updates, amends and absorbs the parent Convention, taking into account technological evolution in the intervening years and the need to take a pragmatic approach to encourage ratification of the instrument.
Convention relating to Civil Liability in the Field of Maritime Carriage of Nuclear Material (NUCLEAR), 1971 July 15, 1975 17 20.38 The purpose of this Convention was to resolve difficulties and conflicts which arise from the simultaneous application to nuclear damage of certain maritime conventions dealing with shipowners’ liability, as well as other conventions which place liability arising from nuclear incidents on the operators of the nuclear installations from which or to which the material in question was being transported. Perhaps we should be thankful that only 17 governments saw any reason to implement it.
Source: IMO

Table 2: The IMO’s greatest hits

While governments apparently have issues with some conventions and protocols, many of the bedrocks of international maritime legislation have been acceded to by member states representing over 90% of world tonnage.
Instrument Date of entry into force No of contracting states % world tonnage*
International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (or STCW), 1978 April 28, 1984 154 99.15
International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (Marpol) 73/78 (Annex I/II) October 2, 1983 150 99.14
International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (Solas) 1974 May 25, 1980 159 99.04
International Convention on Load Lines, 1966 July 21, 1968 159 99.02
International Convention on Tonnage Measurement of Ships, 1969 July 18, 1982 150 98.99
Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972 (COLREGs) July 15, 1977 153 98.36
International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, as modified by the Protocol of 1978 (Annex V) December 31, 1988 140 97.54
Convention on the International Maritime Organization March 17, 1958 169 97.34
International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage, 1992 Protocol May 30, 1996 123 96.7
International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1978 Protocol May 1, 1981 114 96.16
Source: IMO

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