Skip to main content

Across all areas of shipping, from commercial broking to customs laws, you will find frequent references to the IMO - but what is IMO?

IMO is the International Maritime Organization. This specialised agency, which is part of the United Nations, is responsible for regulating and coordinating international shipping to ensure its safety, security, and environmental sustainability.

The IMO was established by a convention adopted at the United Nations Maritime Conference in Geneva in March 1948. It officially came into force some years later in 1958 after being ratified by 21 countries. Originally called the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO), its name was changed to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 1982.

What does IMO stand for?


In the context of global shipping, IMO stands for International Maritime Organization; the specialised United Nations agency, tasked with ensuring safety and security in global shipping, as well as minimising the marine and atmospheric pollution caused by ships.



What is the role of the International Maritime Organization?


The role of the IMO is to encourage cooperation between governments and create a system around regulations and practices related to all technical aspects of international shipping. It hopes that by doing so, it will promote adherence to the highest standards around maritime safety, navigation efficiency, the so-called green transition, and the prevention of marine pollution from ships. In turn, this contributes to a safer, more secure, and environmentally sustainable maritime industry.

A safe, secure and efficient shipping industry is the backbone of today’s modern society. Given that shipping is, undeniably, a global industry, it relies upon the collective agreement on, adoption of, and adherence to, international regulations and standards in order to function. The role of the IMO is to be the space where this happens; providing a regulatory framework on which the sector operates. The IMO’s work covers all facets of shipping, including ship design, construction, equipment, manning, operation and disposal.

What are the four pillars of the International Maritime Organization?

The IMO is built upon four main pillars, commonly referred to as the ‘pillars of the IMO’. These pillars incorporate various aspects of the organisation's work in promoting safety, security, and environmental responsibility across international shipping. The four pillars are:

  1. Safety
    This pillar focuses on ensuring the safety of vessels, crew, and passengers at sea. This element of the IMO’s work involves setting standards for ship design, equipment, and navigation procedures.

  2. Environmental performance
    The second pillar is aimed at preventing marine pollution and minimising the environmental impact of shipping activities. The IMO actively develops regulations and measures to tackle issues including oil spills, air emissions, and the management of ballast water.

  3. Legal matters
    The third pillar relates to the IMO establishing a legal framework for international shipping. This includes conventions and regulations to encourage consistency in maritime practices and standards across the globe.

  4. Technical cooperation
    The IMO provides technical assistance and support to member states, helping them implement and adhere to international maritime regulations. This fourth pillar fosters collaboration and encourages knowledge sharing among member countries.

It is worth noting that in addition to these four pillars, the IMO also emphasises two more:

  • Resource management and oversight
    The IMO manages the resources of the organisation to ensure the effective oversight of its activities.

  • Global standards and regulations
    The organisation develops and maintains global standards and regulations for the safety, security, and environmental performance of international shipping.


Combined, these pillars represent the comprehensive approach taken by the IMO to address the various challenges and responsibilities associated with the maritime industry on a global scale.

How many countries are in the International Maritime Organization?


The IMO was first established through a convention, which came into force in March 1958. When the organisation first met in January 1959, it had 21 member countries. Now, as of January 2024, the IMO has grown to 175 member states, plus three associate member countries (Faroes, Hong Kong, and Macao). The most recent country to join the IMO was Botswana in 2021.