Shipping is perhaps the most international of all the world's great industries - and one of the most dangerous. It has always been recognised that the best way of improving safety at sea is by developing international regulations that are followed by all shipping nations and from the mid-19th century onwards a number of such treaties were adopted.
Several countries proposed that a permanent international body should be established to promote maritime safety more effectively, but it was not until the establishment of the United Nations itself that these hopes were realised. In 1948 an international conference in Geneva adopted a convention formally establishing IMO. It entered into force in 1958 and the new Organisation met for the first time the following year.
Its first task was to adopt a new version of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the most important of all treaties dealing with maritime safety. This was achieved in 1960 and IMO then turned its attention to such matters as the facilitation of international maritime traffic, load lines and the carriage of dangerous goods.
But although safety was and remains IMO's most important responsibility, a new problem was emerging - pollution. The growth in the amount of oil being transported by sea and in the size of oil tankers was a particular concern. Pollution prevention was part of IMO's original mandate but in the late 1960s a number of major tanker accidents resulted in further action being taken.
During the next few years IMO introduced a series of measures designed to prevent accidents and to minimise their consequences. It also tackled the environmental threat caused by routine operations such as the cleaning of oil cargo tanks and the disposal of engine room wastes - in tonnage terms a bigger menace than accidents.
The most important of all these measures was a treaty usually known as MARPOL 73/78 - it was adopted in two stages, in 1973 and 1978. It covers not only accidental and operational oil pollution but also pollution by chemicals, goods in packaged form, sewage and garbage.
Recent changes to the convention will make it necessary for all new tankers to be fitted with double-hulls or a design that provides equivalent cargo protection in the event of a collision or grounding. Since 1 July 1995 these changes have also been applied to existing tankers when they reach 25 years of age. An enhanced programme of surveys for tankers and bulk carriers aged five years and more came into operation on the same day. It is expected that these and other changes will result in many existing ships being scrapped or upgraded in the next few years.
IMO was also given the task of establishing a system for providing compensation to those who had suffered financially as a result of pollution. Two treaties were adopted, in 1969 and 1971, which enabled victims of oil pollution to obtain compensation much more simply and quickly than had been possible before. IMO followed up this success by developing a number of other legal conventions, most of which concerned liability and compensation issues.
Shipping, like all of modern life, has seen many technological innovations and changes. Some of these have presented challenges for the Organisation and others opportunities. The enormous strides made in communications technology, for example, have made it possible for IMO to introduce major improvements into the maritime distress system.
In the 1970s a global search and rescue system was initiated. The 1970s also saw the establishment of the International Mobile Satellite Organisation (INMARSAT) which has greatly improved the provision of radio and other messages to ship.
In 1992 a further advance was made when the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System became operative. When it is fully in force in 1999, it will mean that a ship that is in distress anywhere in the world can be virtually guaranteed assistance, even if its crew does not have time to radio for help, as the message will be transmitted automatically.
Other measures introduced by IMO have concerned the safety of containers, bulk cargoes, liquefied gas tankers and other ship types. Special attention has been paid to crew standards, including the adoption of a special convention on standards of training, certification and watchkeeping.
The adoption of maritime legislation is still IMO's best known responsibility. Around 40 conventions and protocols have been adopted by the Organisation and most of them have been amended on several occasions to ensure that they are kept up to date with changes taking place in world shipping.
But adopting treaties is not enough - they have to be put into effect. This is the responsibility of Governments and there is no doubt that the way in which this is done varies considerably from country to country.
IMO has therefore developed a technical co-operation programme which is designed to assist Governments which lack the technical knowledge and resources that are needed to operate a shipping industry successfully. The emphasis of this programme is very much on training and perhaps the best example is the World Maritime University in Malmo, Sweden, which was established in 1983 and provides advanced training for the men and women involved in maritime administration, education and management.
With a staff of 300 people IMO is one of the smallest of all United Nations agencies. But it has achieved considerable success in achieving its aim of "safer shipping and cleaner oceans." The rate of serious casualties at sea fell appreciably during the 1980s and estimates indicate that oil pollution from ships was cut by around 60% during the same period.
The challenge now facing IMO and its 158 Member States is how to maintain this success at a time when shipping is changing more rapidly than ever before.