IMO documents policy change reaches MEPC

Paul Gunton
Paul Gunton
ShipInsight

01 May 2019


MEPC 74 in a few days’ time (13-17 May) will be the first Marine Environment Protection Committee meeting for which documents are publically available in advance of the meeting. Registered users can access them via the IMODOCS website and registration is free of charge.

This represents a significant change in policy by the organisation. In the past, only IMO delegates have been able to read submissions ahead of committee meetings, which has made it difficult for reporters like me, sitting in the viewing gallery at the back of IMO’s main debating chamber, to follow the discussions we are listening to.

But it was not just visitors who were hampered: anyone who needed to plan for potential IMO decisions would have benefited from understanding the material on which they would be based in advance of the decisions being made.

This change of policy stems from a discussion at the 120th IMO Council meeting (C120) in July 2018, which decided “to remove any restriction explicit or implied on sponsors of documents, so that those who wish to release their documents to the public via IMODOCS prior to a meeting can do so.”

That wording comes from a meeting summary on IMO’s website and is important: the Council did not say that all documents will be available or that they should be available; it simply made it possible for sponsors to make them available if they wish. As a result, when an organisation now submits a paper for an IMO meeting, the process includes a simple ‘yes/no’ box to indicate whether they wish to make it available. Most are choosing ‘yes’, which I welcome.

The Council also “decided to authorise the release of the audio files of the plenary meetings only of the IMO Assembly to the public”, also via IMODOCS. I will find this useful: I make my own recordings when I attend, on the understanding that they are for my personal reporting use.

These Council decisions were taken before MEPC 73, held in October last year, but no papers were available in advance of that meeting. That is because each committee had to confirm whether it would adopt that policy; MEPC 73 did so and it comes into full effect for this next meeting.

I wish I could delve deeper into the Council’s decision, but – ironically – IMODOCS does not include any material from C120 in its public area. In fact, it offers no Council papers at all between meeting No 115 in December 2015 and No 121 in November 2018.

That is because, for its own Council documents, C120 decided these will not be automatically released until three years have passed, so those for C115 have just become available on that basis and C120’s will be published in July 2021. This seems somewhat half-hearted support for transparency but members states or other organisations that submit Council papers can choose to make them public earlier than that. Some of those that made submissions to C121 clearly made that choice, since 14 papers from that meeting are available on IMODOCS.

There is logic in their decision to do that because the discussions about transparency that began in July continued into the November meeting and all the papers available are listed under the heading of ‘Strategy planning and reform’. One, submitted by Australia, begins with the assertion that “openness and transparency should be core priorities at IMO” and identifies “a number of options to increase public access to discussions and decisions.” These include access to documents prior to consideration at meetings and “reform of media guidelines to allow more comprehensive reporting of IMO issues.” It would be perverse for any state that holds such views to not to then make their submission public.

It is clear from Australia’s paper that the question of public access to documents has been raised in many previous Council meetings and it refers a few times to a document submitted to C120 on this point, which I am sure would be worth reading alongside Australia’s submission if only it were available for public view.

I agree with Australia’s argument that “it is timely to revise the document access policy so that all meeting documents will be released to the public prior to the relevant meeting, consistent with the majority of United Nations agencies.” This approach differs from the decision made at C120 because it would make it a matter of policy, rather than choice, that material would be available.

Australia’s paper explains that this “would ensure that broad consultations can be undertaken before technical and policy decisions are finalised at IMO and would help ensure that policies and standards adopted at IMO are fit for purpose and can be efficiently implemented by Member States.”

A brief summary of that meeting reported that a working group was established by the Council and will be re-established at C122 in July this year.

I welcome these developments but it took 70 years from when the convention that established IMO was adopted in 1948. Was it coincidence that last year also saw the organisation Transparency International (TI) take a keen interest in IMO’s policies and procedures? It published a report last April making what it described as ‘a case for reform’ at IMO and another in July, published just before C120, that set out “several key policy issues and recommendations that the IMO … must address in order to meet international standards for transparency, accountability and integrity.”

TI issued a further statement in November, ahead of C121, in which it appeared to claim credit for IMO addressing the topic but IMO itself is reluctant to confirm that link. After I asked three times this week whether the decision to make it possible for submissions to MEPC 74 and other meetings to be available to the public was in response to earlier criticisms about its transparency, its secretariat told me “it was what Member States wanted.”

This July’s Council meeting will be an opportunity for them to show that this really is what they want and fully commit to this new-found desire for openness. In the meantime, I urge ShipInsight readers to take advantage of the material that is now available ahead of MEPC 74 via IMODOCS.

I will do the same. Having made a fuss about this on and off for a number of years, I must now show that my actions match my words and make use of the material now available. Look out for a preview of the meeting on this site next week.

Do you think IMO should be more transparent about its discussions and documents? Email me with your views.