The International Maritime Organization (IMO) was granted Arctic Council Observer status at the 11th Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, in May 2019. IMO is the United Nations specialized agency responsible for safety and security of shipping and prevention of marine pollution by ships. Its Observer status, the organization states, “will allow IMO to build on the existing cooperation with the Arctic Council and to engage in close collaboration on a range of issues related to shipping in the Arctic”.

IMO attaches a particular interest in the Council’s work on search and rescue, pollution response and maritime safety, as well as in the protection of the marine environment. Thus, the Council’s Working Groups have already collaborated with IMO on several issues in the past. In fact, the 2016 IMO “Guide on Oil Spill Response in Ice and Snow Conditions” was developed in coordination with the Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group.

Another strong cooperation topic is the Polar Code adopted by IMO, which provides mandatory requirements for ships operating in the harsh environment of the polar regions. “As receding sea ice opens up new opportunities for an emergent Arctic economy, the Polar Code is providing a strong regime to minimise the negative impact of shipping operations on the pristine polar regions,” Kitack Lim, IMO’s Secretary-General said in an address to Senior Arctic Officials. To support effective implementation of the Polar Code, the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group established the Arctic Shipping Best Practice Information Forum in 2017.

Further topics of cooperation between the Arctic Council’s subsidiary bodies and IMO include the prevention, preparedness and handling of maritime incidents or accidents, which may involve potential release of radioactive substances – a topic dealt with in EPPR’s ARCSAFE project.

“Our role is to ensure that the ships and people which do operate in the Arctic – and the Antarctic – are safe, and that their impact on the environment is minimal”, Kitack Lim stated, thus agreeing with his predecessor that “strong links between IMO and the Arctic Council could only be beneficial”.