COLUMN | IMO’s new secretary-general sets out his stall [Grey Power]

IMO Secretary General Kitack Lim congratulates IMO Marine Environment Division Director Arsenio Dominguez following the latter's confirmation as the organisation's next Secretary General, November 30, 2023. (Photo: IMO)

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) changes its Secretary General but rarely, so it is interesting to see the first thoughts of Arsenio Dominguez, who inherited this important role from Kitack Lim at the turn of the year.

A port engineer from the Republic of Panama, and a long-term IMO inhabitant, a delegate for the world’s biggest flag and a distinguished committee chairman, he is unlikely to find many surprises in Lambeth and his remarks thus far have not been calculated to unduly frighten the horses.

He will, however, be under no illusions about the challenges facing the organisation at a time of political instability and technical change, the demands of those whose every action revolves around the mantra of climate change, and older, more constant requirements to enhance marine safety. In addition, as his predecessor was clearly made aware, the work of the organisation is subject to increasingly critical scrutiny from media, governments, and even the public, in a way that would have been unthinkable a decade or two earlier.

“It is a valid criticism of the IMO that rather too much of its work appears to revolve around satisfying the demands of a large number of hyper-critical NGOs.”

Thus, Mr Domiguez feels it necessary to pledge that the organisation on his watch will have “transparency, inclusion, and diversity” as watchwords for the future, that the organisation will be a centre for “world-class talent” and a “centre of influence”. It will be all of these things, while remaining a “champion of the shipping industry”, which might occasion some relief among what might be considered the IMO’s chief customer and repository of its practical expertise.

He also suggests that the IMO will be “engaging all sectors of society,” which is something that would have astonished the first distinguished holders of the office, who often wished that this mysterious and largely unknown United Nations body might be afforded rather more recognition than it then enjoyed. Yet this is a recognition of modern realities. While the niceties of ship construction and obstruse phraseology of such matters as tonnage measurement or technical specifications remain largely within the remit of expert specialists, there is a lot of IMO work these days that – let’s face it – attracts even the mainstream media.

Forty years ago, nobody outside the industry even noticed that bulk carriers sank rather regularly and tended to drown their crews. Today, if a ship sinks, there will be plenty of attention focused by energetic activists, largely centred on whether any bunkers are likely to be spilt. Today, while complex matters like the revision of technical conventions will pass unnoticed, there will be a crowd of howling, nose-ringed protesters shrieking outside the IMO building while every environmental committee is in session.

While not suggesting that the environment is unimportant, it is a valid criticism of the IMO that rather too much of its work appears to revolve around satisfying the demands of a large number of hyper-critical NGOs that regard shipping as a major menace to the environment and therefore have a marginal interest in the IMO mission of marine safety. The trouble is that these agencies will never be satisfied and will dominate the headlines, and thus, little credit will ever be given to the solid achievements of the IMO in tackling so many environmental challenges over the years. Unsurprisingly, these achievements were undertaken largely without the dubious assistance of noisy activism and with little attention from the rest of the world.

“More credit is due to the organisation’s influence in helping the maritime administrations of developing nations.”

The IMO is never going to satisfy all the disparate interests clamouring for its attention, but it is a genuinely global organisation. It is obviously slowed by its desire for wide consensus but undeserving of the bleating criticism emanating from Brussels, which fails to recognise the need for worldwide rather than regional solutions. Indeed, the divisions occasioned by the attempt to form regional blocs have arguably diminished the quality of debate over the years.

As for “world-class talent”, the IMO can be justifiably proud of its own efforts to produce such excellence, which constantly emerges from the World Maritime University and ripples around the maritime world to universal benefit.

And as regards the priorities of the incoming S-G, it is interesting to see a special mention being made about small island and developing states, which surely deserve a better quality of shipping than they often can afford. The phrase “levelling-up,” which has had some traction in this part of the world, comes to mind.

The IMO does a great deal that is right, and more credit is due to its influence in helping the maritime administrations of developing nations. One might argue with some of the priorities, such as whether there is really such a demand for autonomy, or the influence of manufacturers in the technical debates.

Finally, although one of Mr Dominguez’s distinguished predecessors suggested that the S-G role is like “herding cats”, he might be seen as a very worthy successor.

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.