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The Convention establishing the International Maritime Organization was adopted on 6 March 1948 by the United Nations Maritime Conference which was convened in Geneva on 19 February 1948. The Convention, then known as the Convention on the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization, entered into force on 17 March 1958. The new Organization was inaugurated on 6 January 1959 when the Assembly held its first session. The name of the Organization was changed to the International Maritime Organization in accordance with an amendment to the Convention which entered into force on 22 May 1982.

The purposes of the Organization, as summarized by Article 1(a) of the Convention, are "to provide machinery for co-operation among Governments in the field of governmental regulation and practices relating to technical matters of all kinds affecting shipping engaged in international trade; to encourage and facilitate the general adoption of the highest practicable standards in matters concerning maritime safety, efficiency of navigation and prevention and control of marine pollution from ships". The Organization is also empowered to deal with administrative and legal matters related to these purposes. The Organization has 158 Member States and two Associate Members.