Sekimizu Reflects on Life, Blogging and the Future

Koji Sekimizu

By Tony Munoz 2015-05-19 20:53:04

(Article originally published in Mar/Apr 2015 edition.)

In an exclusive interview, Koji Sekimizu talks about his tenure as Secretary-General and what lies ahead for the IMO, the shipping industry and himself. 

On December 1, 2011, you were appointed the seventh Secretary-General of the IMO. Tell us about your career up to that point.

After finishing college I joined the Ministry of Transport in Japan and held a variety of positions including that of ship inspector. In 1989 I joined the IMO Secretariat as a technical officer in the Maritime Safety Division. From 2000 to 2003 I served as Director of Marine Environment before becoming Director of Maritime Safety in 2004.

What drew you to the shipping industry?

I grew up in Yokohama, which is a huge port filled with ships involved in international trade. As my favorite subjects were math, physics and chemistry, I decided to attend Osaka University and become a marine engineer. I found it fascinating to study hydrodynamics, engine efficiency, vibration, construction and maneuverability of vessels, so after I graduated in 1975 I decided to continue my education and earn a Master’s Degree in ship vibration.

Are you the first Secretary-General to keep a blog?

Yes, I am. It provides an opportunity for me to highlight the organization’s work in a more personal and reflective manner, plus it helps me while away some of the long hours I have to spend in hotel rooms and airport lounges!

Last summer you announced in your blog that you would step down in December after one term in office to take care of your spouse. That must have been a very difficult decision.

First, let me stress that I am not stepping down. I was elected to serve a four-year term and that is what I will do and I will complete my term. The decision I have taken is not to seek re-election. And while it was certainly not an easy decision, it was clearly the right thing for me to do. There are certainly highly‑qualified candidates who can serve very effectively as Secretary-General of IMO, but only one person who can give my wife the support she needs. 

Under your leadership the IMO is transitioning to a more efficient and transparent organization. Tell us about some of the changes.

We have restructured the technical divisions, streamlined budgets throughout the organization and reduced the number of subcommittees from nine to seven. We have become “paper-smart,” reducing the use of paper and relying more on digital devices. Perhaps most importantly, we have implemented a Mandatory Audit Scheme for Member States, which will greatly enhance the quality of global shipping by measuring the performance of flag, port, and coastal States in carrying out their responsibilities regarding the ratification and enforcement of IMO treaties.

In January the reduced sulfur mandate of 0.1% took effect and has created a lot of concern in Northern Europe because enforcement is being left to individual countries. Should the IMO be given uniform enforcement authority?

It is important to understand that the IMO does not have enforcement authority and is unlikely to get it. You only have to think of the practical implications to understand why. Treaties must be enforced by the Member States. Where a convention sets standards or imposes obligations with regard to ships, the flag State must see to it that a mechanism is in place to ensure its ships are properly inspected for compliance and certificated accordingly.

To support flag State oversight, the most important IMO conventions also contain provisions for governments to inspect foreign ships that visit their ports to ensure they meet IMO standards. Ships not meeting the appropriate standards can be detained until any deficiencies are corrected. This is the process known as port State control. What IMO can and does do is assist States to improve their performance as flag and port States through a wide range of technical cooperation and capacity-building activities. 

With regard to the particular issue you mention, we should be in no doubt that the reduction of harmful exhaust emissions is a vital measure for coastal and inland air quality and will have a greatly beneficial effect on human health and both the natural and man-made environment.

You played a major role in the development of the so-called Polar Code. Tell us about that.

While the receding ice in the Arctic Ocean provides an excellent opportunity for shorter sea passages and reduced operational costs, the commercial infrastructure to support such activity is not in place yet. The polar regions lack adequate navigational information, up‑to-date hydrography, adequate search-and-rescue and spill-response capabilities, and so on. There is a clear need for special measures to safeguard shipping and protect the environment in such inhospitable conditions. This is why IMO has been developing the Polar Code, which covers the full range of shipping-related matters relevant to navigation in waters surrounding the two poles.

The process is now nearing completion. The safety elements of the Code were adopted by the Maritime Safety Committee last year, and the environmental elements are expected to be adopted by the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) at its next session in May, together with associated MARPOL amendments. 

You have worked hard for the ratification of the Ballast Water Management Convention. What is holding it up, and why is it so important?

It is important to understand that, before a State can ratify an international treaty, it must first implement the necessary provisions and procedures under its own national laws to enforce it, and that can take time. Member States have also recognized that there have been concerns from the industry regarding whether there is a sufficient number of approved ballast water management systems in place that can meet the standards set out in the treaty. I believe, however, that all of the major concerns have now been addressed through resolutions adopted by the IMO Assembly and the MEPC as well as guidance adopted and agreed by the MEPC. 

I now sincerely hope that those States holding tonnage of more than 2.5 percent will change their position and take swift action to ratify the BWM Convention as soon as possible. The MEPC needs to take follow-up action, of course, but there should not be any additional obstacles to global implementation. The Convention should become effective as soon as possible to enable unified implementation of its provisions and ultimately eliminate species invasions via ballast water. I also believe that shipowners should start installing systems now and not wait for “tomorrow.”

You have been a very forward-looking Secretary-General, and last year you identified three new challenges that confront the industry and urgently need to be addressed: (1) the flood of migrants from North Africa across the Mediterranean to countries like Italy, (2) the safety of domestic ferry operations in the wake of the Sewol tragedy, and (3) containership safety following the break-up and sinking of the MOL Comfort. Tell us about each of these challenges and what, in your view, needs to be done.

Thank you. I think that drawing attention to the challenges that lie ahead is an important part of the Secretary-General’s role.

With regard to the first of these, thousands of people, driven by desperate circumstances in their homelands, are fleeing the shores of northern Africa to seek refuge in Europe. But they are doing so outside the legal framework that exists for migration and in such huge numbers that they are proving almost impossible to deal with. It is being organized and orchestrated by people who trade and traffic in the lives of others. There is a legal framework in place to make this a crime – the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, which is an annex to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. What we are seeing now, in the Mediterranean, is international crime, and it needs to be treated as such. This means collective action by all concerned to detain, arrest and prosecute people‑smugglers.

The second challenge is how to address domestic ferry safety in the wake of the Sewol tragedy, which cost the lives of so many people, especially young people. I said in the immediate aftermath that the time had now come for IMO to take action to improve the safety of passenger ships carrying hundreds of people, regardless of whether the voyage takes place in international or domestic waters. I took action under our Integrated Technical Cooperation Programme to revitalize our existing project on domestic ferry safety. A mechanism has been established to develop technical guidelines and recommendations to improve the safety of domestic passenger ships and we are now preparing for a major conference on the safety of such ships in Manila this spring.

Finally, the containership MOL Comfort, which broke in two during a voyage in the Indian Ocean in the summer of 2013 and, despite several attempts to rescue the two separate parts of the hull, they both sank during the following weeks. This incident prompted the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) to develop new functional requirements for certain aspects of containership design, and I would welcome submissions to IMO on this matter from IACS and any other industry body that might lead to concrete proposals for IMO to consider.

IMO had already been looking at issues relating to losses of containers, addressing lashing and securing issues and misdeclared cargo. As a result, a new regulation will enter into force in 2016 that will require mandatory verification of the gross mass of containers, either by weighing the packed container or by weighing all packages and cargo items and adding the tare mass.

What were your goals upon first becoming Secretary-General? Do you feel you will have accomplished them by the end of your term?

In a speech I made to the IMO Assembly in 2011, thanking it for putting its faith in me, I highlighted a number of challenges that would face IMO in the coming years. These included combatting piracy; the debate on greenhouse gas emissions; the IMO Member State Audit Scheme; sustainable financing for the World Maritime University and its future operation, and the need to review and strengthen the organization’s technical cooperation and capacity-building efforts.

I also referred to the fact that 2012 would mark 100 years since the sinking of the Titanic and that the anniversary would provide an excellent opportunity for IMO and the maritime community to review past achievements, consider present challenges and contemplate the future of ship safety. I emphasized the significance of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development to be held in June 2012 (Rio+20), and that IMO should play a critical role for the world economy in ensuring environmentally sound and sustainable shipping.

I think we have already made significant progress in each of these areas as well as several other new challenges, many of which I have referred to in this interview. I was also keen to instigate a process of review and reform within the organization itself and, as I explained earlier, this is well underway and will leave it better equipped to face the future.

How do you want to be remembered – as your legacy, so to speak?

Well, first let me say that my term is not yet over, so it is perhaps a bit premature to talk in terms of legacy. In any case, I really think that is something for others to say rather than me. – MarEx

Tony Munoz is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive.


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.