international convention on safety of life at sea

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Response to Titanic

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea is widely considered to be one of the most important treaties protecting the safety and survival of people and crafts on the ocean, and has been in force (in one form or another) since 1914 when, in response to the tragedy of the RMS Titanic. This initial treaty took the form of a document demanding the correct number and capacity of lifeboats and other safety features including continuous radio watches and early warning systems, in order to prevent another such tragic and clearly avoidable incident.


There have been multiple amendments to the law in the intervening years in order to deal with changes in the maritime world, with newer versions of the convention being conceptualized and adopted in 1929, 1948, 1960 and 1974. The version adopted in 1960 and activated in 1965 was the first major convention adopted by the International Maritime Organization, its first major impact on global maritime law. This development was a response to and a recognition of the increasing technological advances in the maritime industry.

As is shown by the dates of the amendments to the law, the process of updating it has been glacially slow over the years, and as a result the 1974 convention was bulwarked by a principle of “tacit acceptance”. How this works in practice is that any suggested amendment can enter into force by default without the need to convene another meeting of the IMO, with nations having the opportunity to opt out of the amendment. This is in contrast with the previous situation, where each signatory to the IMO had to give notice of its acceptance, a state of affairs which slowed the whole process considerably.

Duties of the Captain

A captain enjoys full authority on the ship but it does come with increased responsibilities especially in cases of emergency when safety of life is concerned.

Among the requirements imposed by the convention are that the captain’s duties are broadened to cover the need for the ship to provide rescue for anyone in peril at sea where this is possible. Any individual who is rescued in such circumstances is also entitled to be delivered promptly to a place of safety. These captain’s duties also include an undertaking to treat any rescued person or stowaway humanely as far as they can within the capabilities of the ship.

All of these requirements are aimed at the goal of ensuring the safety and survival of those in peril on the seas. In combination with the safety requirements that have been imposed and updated since the first treaty in 1914, this is intended to avoid any loss of life where possible in seagoing situations. Such requirements have seen to it that there have been very few major incidents on the open sea since that fateful day in 1912 when the Titanic suffered its tragic, and completely avoidable, end. Simple matters like the correct number and capacity of lifeboats at that time would have saved countless lives, but the costly vanity of certain individuals, which would have been illegal under the Maritime Law provisions of 1914, was allowed to win the day.