Australia Urges More Transparency at IMO; Other Countries Counsel Deferral

By Toby McIntosh

The government of Australia has proposed greater transparency at the International Maritime Organization, recommending more public access to IMO documents and removal of restrictions on reporters covering IMO meetings.

But a coalition of other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, has taken the strategic position that transparency is too controversial a topic to be taken up by a working group on organizational reform and could impede progress on broad structural reforms.

The brewing debate is expected to come to a head in closed Council meetings Nov. 19-23. The Council is scheduled to set the “terms of reference” for the working group, which was formed to address structural issues such as Council membership.

The United Nations agency charged with overseeing ocean shipping significantly limits access to documents and severely restricts press coverage of its meetings. Access to information at the IMO was the focus of a series of articles in June by

Australia’s pre-meeting memo begins: “Openness and transparency should be core priorities for IMO. As the global regulator of international shipping, the policies and standards developed by the Organization affect a broad range of stakeholders beyond the maritime industry.”

Australia, which was the prime mover in the Council’s July decision to create a reform working group, identified a number of options to increase public access to discussions and decisions. These include:

  • providing access to documents prior to consideration at meetings;
  • providing public access to timely (or preferably live) video streaming of plenary meetings of the Council and the committees;
  • reform of the media guidelines to allow more comprehensive reporting of IMO issues;
  • publication of reports of the Council and the Assembly meeting outcomes; and
  • providing free electronic copies of consolidated versions of key IMO instruments and administrative documentation.

Even at open IMO meetings, reporters are prohibited from quoting what speakers say without getting their explicit permission.

Australia wrote that “the current terms and conditions place needless limitations on press reporting and limit public understanding of the discussions and decisions taken at IMO.” The statement continued, “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.”

Coalition Raises Objections

In opposing the consideration of transparency proposals in the context of the working group, the US, UK and the five other coalition members cited “reservations” raised by unnamed countries during a Council meeting (closed) in July. The coalition also includes Saudi Arabia, Japan, Panama, the Cook Islands and the Marshall Islands.

“It was clear from the interventions made that a number of countries had reservations regarding further expansion of access to information, some attributing this to a concern that it could lead to outside influence,” according to the coalition memo of Oct. 19. The coalition concluded, “Based on this, the co-sponsors recommend that this topic/issue not be included in the terms of reference of the Working Group.”

A person familiar with the rationale for the coalition’s position said it doesn’t reflect opposition to more transparency.  Debate over transparency within this working group, could delay action on vital structural reforms.

Unclear is whether transparency issues would be taken up outside the working group.

The IMO has made a few very small moves on transparency in recent years.

The Council in July agreed that documents from its meetings will be released after three years and clarified that member countries are free to release documents they submit in advance of meetings. In the absence of such an indication, pre-meeting documents are kept private. (See EYE story.) More than 70 special interest organizations accredited as IMO “consultative members,” however, get access to the draft proposals and country statements that are not available the public or the press. (See Secretariat memo proposing the changes.)