The International Maritime Organization (IMO) was established in 1948 as a specialized agency of the United Nations and, in the process, has been charged with the regulation of international shipping from the safety, security and environmental protection points of view.

During its existence, IMO has established a comprehensive body of international conventions, supported by hundreds of recommendations governing every facet of the shipping industry. Key treaties are the SOLAS Convention for the safety of life at sea, the MARPOL Convention for the prevention of pollution by ships - both marine and atmospheric - and the STCW Convention on standards of training for seafarers. IMO has also adopted rules concerning distress and safety communications, search and rescue and marine pollution response operations. Other treaty instruments include those providing compensation and liability regimes for oil pollution damage and for damage suffered by passengers and their belongings at sea.

The monitoring of compliance with IMO’s standards is the responsibility of Member States, but the Voluntary IMO Member State Audit Scheme, introduced in 2006, plays a key role in enhancing their effective and uniform implementation throughout the world, as does the Organization’s extensive technical co-operation programme. The mandatory audit scheme of all Member States commenced from 1 January 2016.

IMO’s work aims at ensuring that lives at sea are not put at risk and that the environment is not polluted by shipping operations - as summed up in its objectives: Safe, Secure and Efficient Shipping on Clean Oceans

WMU is an independent academic institution founded by IMO in 1983 with the aim of providing advanced training for men and women involved in maritime administration, education and management, particularly those from developing countries. The institution - along with the IMO International Maritime Law Institute (IMLI) in Malta, and the International Maritime Safety, Security and Environment Academy (IMSSEA) in Italy, supports the Organization's technical cooperation programme, the mission statement of which is "to help developing countries improve their ability to comply with international rules and standards relating to maritime safety and the prevention and control of maritime pollution, giving priority to technical assistance programmes that focus on human resources development and institutional capacity-building."

The Chancellor of WMU is a post that has traditionally been held by the Secretary-General of IMO.