UK, Panama, US and Marshall Islands accused of seeking to halt reforms at the IMO

The UK, the Cook Islands, Marshall Islands, Panama, United Arab Emirates and the United States stand accused today of holding back reforms at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) ahead of an important meeting at the United Nations body in London next week.

The NGO Transparency International report today that these six countries, featuring some of the largest registries in the world, signed and submitted an official document – seen by Splash and carried below  – to the IMO last month warning that “further expansion of access to information” about the agency “could lead to outside influence”.

Transparency International is urging the IMO Council, which meets next week, to give a new working group reforming governance at the UN shipping agency a remit that allows it to effectively increase public scrutiny and civil society participation.

Transparency International’s assessment of the IMO’s governance structure published in July 2018 found a number of flaws in the IMO’s governance, including a disproportionate influence of private industry and an unequal influence of certain member states in the policymaking process. These claims have been disputed by IMO officials in the wake of the July report. Transparency International also highlighted a significant lack of delegate accountability, with the public often unable to find out their national delegation’s position in debates and negotiations.

Rueben Lifuka, vice-chair of Transparency International, commented today: “The agency needs to move towards a more open and transparent way of operating, with greater opportunities for public scrutiny and civil society engagement. The stakes are too high for the entire planet for the IMO to continue to operate as a closed shop.”

An IMO spokesperson told Splash today: “The council meets next week so proposals will be discussed then.”

At the last session, the council discussed a number of proposals aimed at reforming the council, including those relating to the council’s role in policy making; size and geographical distribution; and conduct of campaigns for election.

The council decided to establish a working group, open to all member states, to meet next week, to consider in more detail, the various council reform proposals.

Among a host of proposals due for discussion in London next week, the Australian delegation is keen to debate greater media freedom at the IMO.

“Australia recommends a review of the current terms and conditions of accredited media access to IMO. Currently journalists are restricted from reporting discussions during plenary or directly quoting delegates without their express permission,” the document submitted from Canberra states.

Additionally, media requests to film during committee or subsidiary bodies must be supported by a national delegation or organisation in consultative status. Since these applications are also assessed by the secretariat and approved by the relevant meeting, this additional step is unnecessary, the Australians stated.

“In Australia’s view the current terms and conditions place needless limitations on press reporting and limit public understanding of the discussions and decisions taken at IMO. Delegates represent their national governments and statements made during plenary are statements of confirmed government policy and should therefore be able to be quoted without permission,” the document concluded.

The terms of reference for the working group will be decided on Monday.


Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.


  1. Too late: the horse has bolted.

    Here we have a bunch of very angry men (mostly men) whose view of life does not include the idea that the non-shipping general public, seen by old style shipping people as a rabble of ill informed, easily misled, impractical amateurs, have an interest in what ships and their owners get up to.

    The Secretive Six are trying to turn the IMO back into the sort of private club for vested interests that it was in the days when Secretaries- General could parachute comfortably into the private sector without anyone seeing anything wrong.

    These people haven’t realised that the regulation of merchant shipping in the era of anthropogenic change to the environment is a great deal too important to be left to exporters, shipowners and their poodles. They want to stick with Bismarck’s idea of the making of laws as akin to the making of sausages – best done out of sight.

    Welcome to the Internet. The public have an interest in the IMO. No more stitch ups in the corridors.

  2. Reading about the “disproportionate influence of private industry” at the IMO never fails to amuse me in view of the fact that the industry NGOs in attendance don’t have a vote – leaving them with no other alternative but to convince the IMO Member States of the merits of their views in the usual manner (the presentation of facts and analysis being the most credible approach).
    Otherwise, the Australians have got the right idea with respect to access for the press. Although neither desirable nor workable at IMO’s working group level, where the open exchange of views amongst stakeholders should not be compromised, the official and more formal discussions during the plenary sessions of the IMO committees do deserve to be witnessed by the global community, and reported by accredited journalists.

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