Legal Framework & the IMO

Legal Framework


The prime legislation for all maritime matters world wide is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

This UN convention has many parts. It also commissions the International Maritime Organisation(IMO) as an agency of the UN.

The IMO ensures co-operation among maritime governments of the world. It also uses a number of instruments to implement and maintain standards in areas of maritime safety, prevention of marine pollution, and shipping navigation

There are 5 important instruments which IMO uses to ensure smooth operations at the sea, backed by highest standards of maritime safety, these are

  1. Conventions
  2. Protocols
  3. Amendments
  4. Recommendations, codes, and guidelines
  5. Resolutions


A convention is a written agreement with several parts. Conventions form a major part of maritime affairs governed by the IMO. Some of the major conventions by IMO are Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) 1974 convention and International convention for prevention of pollution from Ships (MARPOL).

Conventions generally have several sub-parts, which would describe in details various aspects of the subject defined by that particular convention. For e.g. MARPOL convention has six parts which are known as annexes. Each of these annexes deals with different aspect of marine pollution.

Sometimes details given within a convention are put under an associated code, which provides further technical details of that aspect; for e.g. the Life saving appliances (LSA) code gives details for minimum requirements for safety equipment used on board ships.

These codes are often ameliorated by adaption into yachting codes such as LY3 and the SYC to simplify their impact on smaller ships.

Each member state must accept the details mentioned in conventions put forth by the IMO and agree to international supervision required under such conventions.

Conventions act as a binding treaty between the IMO and member states.


Protocol is an important instrument used by the IMO to introduce changes to conventions, which are already adopted but not yet entered into force.

For e.g. SOLAS convention 1973 was amended twice using protocols – by 1978 SOLAS protocol which entered into force in 1st May 1981 and by 1988 SOLAS protocol which entered into force on 3rd Feb 2000. Both the protocols are now known as SOLAS 74/78 and SOLAS 74/88.


As mentioned above, amendments are major changes that are brought into action using protocols. Amendments are the reforms that are needed in a convention and are backed by the protocols.

For e.g. Because of several accidents at sea, there was an urgent need to change the MARPOL 1973 convention in 1970s. These changes or amendments were brought into action by the combined convention-protocol instrument called MARPOL 73/78 on 2nd October 1983.

Recommendations, codes, and guidelines

Recommendations are mainly guidelines which are not legally accepted. They are not formal documents like convention or protocol but are a list of recommended practices that are closely linked to conventions. For e.g. timber deck cargo code.

Recommendations can also be guidelines which are waiting to be accepted by the IMO.

However, it is to note that though recommendations are not legally binding, some governments might apply them in whole or in part.

Codes and guidelines can be both mandatory and non mandatory. Codes such as ISM (Safety Management) and IBC (Bulk Cargo) codes are mandatory and are a part of a parent convention or protocol.


Resolutions are the finalised documents which are accepted by the IMO or any of the main body under IMO. They generally result from an agreement on a recommendation or amendment.

Resolution passed by the assembly is denoted in a peculiar manner.

For e.g. Resolution A. 586 (XIV).

Where, A = assembly; 586 = serial number of resolution; and XIV = Made by the 14th session of the assembly.


PORT STATE CONTROL have the authority under UNCLOS to impose international compliance with any IMO convention on vessels entering its waters.

A vessel found not to be compliant at port state control may be issued an Improvement Notice (with a limited time period before compliance is required) or a Prohibition Notice (in effect seizing the vessel so that it is not permitted to move from the berth without release by PSC.

UK Law

UK adopts the provisions of IMO resolutions into the Merchant Shipping Act (MSA) 1995. This has the power of criminal law.

Another major Act of parliament that applies to shipping is the HSSE Act and PPE Regulations.