Secretary-General of the IMO Arsenio Dominguez at the Brussels Conference on The Wellbeing of Seafarers, March 2024 © IMO

Shipping for success
Sitting down with Arsenio Dominguez, Secretary-General of the IMO about how he plans to lead the organization and secure the future of shipping
1 May 2024

Taking the reins of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) at the beginning of this year, Mr. Arsenio Dominguez has pledged to face the challenges impacting the shipping industry and find ways to keep the IMO’s head above water as they move forward as a unit of solidarity and innovation.

Mr. Dominguez, how do you intend to lead the IMO?

My objective is a forward-looking organization and I intend to lead by example. Even though we are a United Nations (UN) entity and Member States establish our mandate, we can copy practices from the private sector. This will help us be more inclusive, diverse, and transparent. We have achieved a lot of progress, but there is more work to do. I want to engage more with the younger generations who are going to be the future of the industry, as well as provide support to the current staff within the organization.

To better serve the Member States, I have four key priorities:

1. Our work

How our staff can support the issues we discuss with Member States. This varies from how we are protecting the environment, to safety, to how we look to use new technologies. This also addresses negative aspects, such as how we protect our data against cyber risks.

2. Support we provide to Member States

This is particularly needed in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Once we have the regulatory process in place, we help them to meet the standards set. I plan to look at the way we allocate the funds and plan the activities, so we can use our resources in a more efficient manner. We will then be in a position to review our activity in about three years, so we can measure our success in various projects and focus on areas where progress was not made.

3. Our image and shipping as a whole

Shipping accounts for over 80% of global goods transport, but this image does not represent everything shipping does for society. It was very visible during the COVID-19 pandemic, when shipping was the only mode of transport that continued to operate, but that awareness has since lessened – although there is a renewed focus on global trade by sea, given the conflict 

in the Red Sea and its impact on shipping and seafarers. Therefore, I am engaging with stakeholders – including the media – and communicating our work as an organization which supports safe and environmentally friendly shipping.

4. Our people in the organization

I want to enhance our internal processes, so we are more agile and proactive within the organization. I prefer an inclusive leadership style and welcome the input of individuals to bring their ideas in. I am keen for people to engage with the changes that will make the IMO more attractive for people to come and work with us.

What are your main priorities right now?

My main priority right now is tackling the negative effects the geopolitical situation is having against shipping, in particular the current events in the Red Sea. I have been very vocal on three key messages. The first is the protection of innocent seafarers, which is paramount. Next is freedom of navigation: many more ships are now going around the south of Africa. This has a negative impact on global economies and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, because now shipping is forced to navigate longer routes – rather than using more logistical, connected routes. We are providing more support to Member States, particularly those in the region of Africa and around the Red Sea, and to those in the shipping industry, with the guidance that we have in place to maintain safety of the seafarers.

The third priority is GHG. In July 2023, the IMO adopted the 2023 IMO GHG Strategy, aimed at decarbonizing the sector by around 2050. Shipping cannot decarbonize on its own, we need the support of other sectors – like the energy sector – which will be required to produce the renewable fuels for ships to operate with zero or near-zero emissions. We also need to investigate the human aspects of implementing this decarbonization transition in shipping, including training for seafarers, the workforce of the future.

What are the greatest challenges that the IMO faces at this current moment, in the face of geopolitical instability?

External factors have a huge impact because they affect trade by sea, as we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic. We worked very closely with the UN to establish the Black Sea Grain Initiative that assisted the flow of trade from Ukraine into the rest of the world. Now, with the situation in the Red Sea, we will continue to work with the UN.

On my third day in the office, I briefed the UN Security Council on the negative effects of the Red Sea situation on shipping. The outcome was a Security Council resolution highlighting the importance of shipping, protecting seafarers, and the safety and the freedom of navigation.

One example of modernization is the Maritime Single Window (MSW), which is now mandatory for shipping. Basically, it permits remote and electronic data exchange between the ship and shoreside authorities. This can be safer, because you have all the information in advance; and greener, because it can mean less time in port.

What relation does the IMO have with other UN agencies, and how do you work together on specific projects?

It is not always visible, but there is a lot of cooperation between the UN agencies. In May 2024, I will be attending the UN Chief Executives Board meeting, which brings together principals from all UN agencies and programs to discuss key areas of common interest, where we are commonly affected, and how we can work together. From there, it cascades down to two committees, the High-Level Committee of Management and the High-Level Committee of Programmes. These meetings allow us to think strategically on broad issues impacting the whole of the UN system – such as common challenges like AI or misinformation and disinformation.

On a general level, we work with a number of different UN agencies and entities on various common goals. We work with the International Labour Organization (ILO) on seafarer labor issues, for example. We have a long history of working with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on dissemination of safety information relating to weather and waves. We have close links with the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS) of the Office of Legal Affairs of the United Nations, which serves as the Secretariat of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). There is a lot that goes on between the agencies and the UN works like a family. We may not see each other daily, but there are always ways in which we can learn from and support each other.

How do you intend to instill the values of inclusion, diversity, and transparency in the organization?

We need to look at ensuring diversity in geographical representation. I want to start internally, so I am working on recruitment to balance our approach to improve diversity. We have seen this on the gender side, but diversity is a lot more than that, with inclusion and representation in the organization. This is a ‘no harassment, no bullying’ organization. I will be the first one to tackle any single case, respecting all staff members, and I expect everyone to do the same thing.

When I took over as the IMO’s Secretary-General, I implemented changes in the senior management structure to ensure a gender-balanced representation. This initiative serves as a clear and consistent message that I convey to Member States and the media during interviews or sessions. Additionally, I am committed to declining invitations to participate in panels lacking gender representation.

We select a theme every year, and for 2024, it is ‘Navigating the future: safety first!’ We are marking 50 years since the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was adopted in 1974, and we want to look to the future, ensuring new technologies and developments are integrated into our regulations, but with a focus on safety. Shipping is sometimes seen as just for the seafarers, who are important, but shipping provides a lot of opportunities around the world, and we want to bring more young people and more diversity into seafaring, and encourage the next generation to choose shipping as a career.

There are many opportunities in the sector – from liability, ship design, construction, inspections, new technologies, the management of shipping companies, trade and logistics. Maritime is a huge industry, critical to world trade – but at the IMO, we are a small family of around 300 people, so visibility is really important for us as an organization. 

* Mollie Fraser-Andrews is Editorial Coordinator for UN Today.
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