By Toby McIntosh
The International Maritime Organization Council has agreed that documents from its meetings will be released after three years, according to an IMO spokesperson.
The decision by the Council was made in a closed July meeting, but not announced.
A summary of the meeting is still being drafted, but it will not be disclosed until 2021 under the new Council policy.
The decision on releasing Council documents was not included in the nine-paragraph IMO press release about the Council meeting that highlighted several other transparency-related Council decisions. (See article in Eyeonglobaltransparency.net)
One change will allow IMO member governments to release their own documents in advance of IMO committee meetings. Another decision will mandate that the IMO Secretariat disclose the documents it submits to committees in advance of meetings (unless the committee decides to restrict access).
The new developments come with caveats. They don’t apply to documents submitted for Council meetings or to working groups, where many policies are developed.
At present, all pre-meeting committee materials are kept confidential until after meetings. However, pre-meeting documents are shared not only among the 174-member governments, but also with the 77 IMO-approved industry groups and nongovernmental organizations known as “consultative members.”
The new alterations leave in place other restrictions on transparency at the UN agency in charge of international policies on ocean shipping.
The IMO still does not have a formal policy governing how the public can request documents.
The IMO constrains journalists from reporting on open meetings, prohibiting them from quoting speakers without permission.
IMO policies give governments the authority to veto the release of audits describing in detail their conformance with IMO standards.
See previous articles by EyeonGlobalTransparency.net on transparency gaps at the IMO.
Follow Eye on Twitter at #tobyjmcintosh.
Transparency on Reform Group Agenda
Other moves on transparency could be generated by a new working group the Council established on reforming the IMO structure more generally. While the higher profile topics will concern issues such Council membership and industry influence, transparency is among the topics to be considered.
The proposal to establish a working group was submitted by 12 countries including Australia, Bahamas and Liberia. Membership on the working group is open to all member states, not just the 40 Council members. No chairperson has been designated. The group is to meet in November.
The IMO Secretariat may prepare a paper for the working group, said an IMO spokesperson, but it will not be disclosed.
A hint that more transparency may meet resistance came in statements made by the Danish Maritime Authority to Shipping Watch (registration required).
Asked for its opinion on current restrictions on reporting from plenary discussions in IMO, the Authority replied:
When access is currently provided to journalists but not the possibility to freely cite it is, among other things, due to the fact that real negotiations among the member states are carried out in IMO over the microphone. The negotiations should not be conducted outside the context of the meeting. However, we look forward to discussing the pros and cons of allowing free citation in the upcoming reform discussions.
As a journalist I have a vested interest in openness and the ability of the media to fully report meetings and speakers.
But the IMO’s credibility and status could be enhanced by being more democratic — and being seen to be more democratic.
Transparency should also make it easier to enforce decisions. It may even speed things up by exposing any public grandstanding followed by private foot-dragging.
Access to Council Documents Limited
Council documents are not part of the IMO online records system, but a spokesperson explained to EYE what access is available to historical material. She wrote:
Not on IMODOCS, but past council papers pre 2010 are available to anyone coming to carry out research IMO’s Maritime Knowledge Centre.
The Maritime Knowledge Centre (MKC) holds archives of all meeting documents, in paper form, from 1959 to 2010. In addition, the MKC holds a digital database of all meeting documents from 1959-2003, which is currently being updated to be more user-friendly. Further, the MKC holds digital copies of all resolutions of the Assembly, Council and the committees and is in the process of developing a modern, searchable database for these documents. Currently, MEPC resolutions to MEPC 71 and MSC resolutions to MSC 98 are contained in the database. All resolutions will also be searchable through the MKC online catalogue.
For IMODOCS, the Council made decisions regarding access to the information contained therein in 2008. Access to information in the MKC is governed by internal Secretariat policy regarding access to the MKC. In general, members of the public are allowed to visit the MKC and review documents in the archives by appointment, and with the assistance of the MKC staff.