IMO Council Leaves Transparency on Agenda of Reform Working Group

By Toby McIntosh

The possibility of transparency reforms at the International Maritime Organization remains afloat following the July meeting of the IMO Council.

Some members, including the United States and the United Kingdom, had sought to keep transparency off the table on the grounds that it would be too much to handle as the agency grappled with proposals for structural reforms such as voting procedures. (See previous EYE article.)

A “open-ended” working group on reform issues will continue working and member states can bring any issue to the table, according an IMO official.

Moreover, the Council noted a draft work program, which says that at the next meeting it will:

  • consider further progress draft amendments to the IMO convention;
  • consider guidance on application of criteria for Council Members;
  • consider proposals on a draft Code of ethics for campaigns for election to the Council;
  • consider the role of NGOs at IMO and approve draft amendments to the Rules and guidelines for consultative status of non-governmental international organizations with the international maritime organization, for submission to the IMO Assembly 31st session (A.31) for adoption;
  • consider and finalize measures for access to information and transparency, taking into account additional information provided by the Secretariat on financial implications; and
  • consider and finalize draft amendments to rule 40 (relating to voting procedures) of the Rules of Procedure of the Assembly, for submission to A 31 for adoption.

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

The agency gave no further information on possible transparency changes, but appears to have tasked the Secretariat to undertake a study on the possible costs. Such reports are typically non-public, as are meetings of the Council and the working group.  Of the six bulleted tasks, transparency and voting are the two topics which the Council said it will “consider and finalize.”

Transparency International, in a Nov. 15 statement, said the IMO “needs to move towards a more open and transparent way of operating, with greater opportunities for public scrutiny and civil society engagement.” TI continued, “The stakes are too high for the entire planet for the IMO to continue to operate as a closed shop.”

The reform working group will meet next during the next Council session – to be held July 16-19,  2019. The chair is Edmundo Deville (Peru),  vice chairman of the Council.

The working group is open to all members and official observers, as well as intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations in consultative status with IMO, but not the public.

Members circulated position papers on possible reforms in advance of the Council meeting Nov. 19-23 and working group meeting held during the same week. Members  may make their positions public and post them on the IMO website, although many submissions are kept private.

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.