Online Exhibitions & Stories

Dr Rosalie Balkin

Rewriting Women into Maritime History

This article was written for the Rewriting Women into Maritime initiative by Mariana Noceti, Principal Programme Assistant, at the International Maritime Organization.


Dr Rosalie Balkin

Maritime Lawyer


Dr Rosalie Balkin © Image courtesy of Rosalie Balkin 


“I must confess that I never consciously made the decision to go into the maritime sector”, Dr. Balkin disclosed. After all, she did grow up in Johannesburg, South Africa, 500 kilometres from the nearest sea and, at least in her milieu, matters maritime rarely were on the agenda.  Even at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she studied and later lectured on public international law, no course was offered either on maritime law or even the law of the sea as the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) had not yet been adopted. 

It was only some years later, after she emigrated to Australia and joined the Federal Attorney-General’s Department to take up a position in the Office of International Law (OIL) that her interest in the subject was piqued.   The primary function of the Office was to advise the Government and other departments on all areas of international law, including maritime law.  One of her main clients in the latter field was the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), Australia’s national regulatory body, tasked inter alia with the responsibility for maritime safety and protection of the marine environment.  As AMSA administered all the regulations developed at IMO, she too soon became involved in these matters. 

Joining OIL as part of the Australian public service was a “big shift” for Dr Balkin. For one thing, the pace of work steeply increased—advices were often requested to be given at short notice and the knowledge that they might be influencing Government policy was “rather exciting”.  Preparing for and attending international meetings involved developing debating and diplomatic skills in “the real world” and not just in academic fora, and exchanging views and making friendships with delegates from so many parts of the world was, for her, a privilege and a delight. 

Apart from providing legal advice on maritime law, she was nominated by the Attorney-General’s Department to attend meetings of the Legal Committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO)  - most often as Head of Delegation  - and she often attended back-to-back meetings of the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPCF).  Both meetings were held bi-annually at IMO Headquarters in London, so she soon became immersed in questions of maritime law, as developed by both these international agencies.   

During this first section of her career, she was visiting London as an Australian public servant representing Australia and promoting Australian interests.  Many other national delegations were headed by public servants who were mostly (but not all) lawyers, all of them steeped in the maritime issues of the moment, although, depending on the subject-matter under discussion, experts from outside the public service were sometimes included as part of the national delegations. For example, when the Hazardous and Noxious Substances (HNS) Convention was being renegotiated, a representative from the Australian coal industry joined the delegation to ensure that coal interests would be protected.  Then, like now, many observer delegations from different sectors of the shipping industry, as well as from non-government international organisations (NGOs) regularly attended these meetings (like Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF)).  Dr. Balkin describes the experience as fascinating, since she had the opportunity to participate in the debates from so many different perspectives.  While things got a bit heated at times, the atmosphere was mostly friendly and cooperative, which enabled positive outcomes to be achieved. 

During this period, the work achievement Dr Balkin is most proud of is convincing the Legal Committee to take on board the development and adoption of the International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution, 2001 (Bunkers Convention).  Although it was a priority for the Australian delegation, it was decidedly not a popular topic at IMO at the outset of the exercise, but as time went on, the Committee became convinced of the need for such a convention and once adopted, it entered into force in a very short space of time. 

After her tenure in OIL, her next big career change occurred in 1998, when she was offered the post of Director, Legal Affairs and External Relations Division at the IMO.  This was an offer that no international lawyer could possibly refuse. Moving to London and working at the IMO for the next fifteen years certainly added a new dimension to her work career. When Dr. Balkin joined the Secretariat, she took an oath that she would be true to the IMO, which she regarded with the upmost seriousness.  For her, this meant, among other things, that her allegiance had shifted to the UN and to IMO in particular, and the Organization’s interests took priority over those of Australia as her adopted  country.  Her new work involved providing legal advice to the Secretary-General and other IMO officers as well as to the various IMO Committees, not just the Legal Committee.  As Secretary to the Legal Committee and Executive Secretary to the IMO’s governing bodies, the Council and Assembly, she became closely involved with the work of the Organization as a whole.  She also learnt a great deal from her “other” role as Director of External Relations. Before this opportunity, Dr Balkin had not truly realized just how helpful, indeed invaluable, developing, and maintaining good relationships with everyone who visited IMO would be.  Not only to gain support when needed in certain circumstances but also to make the wheels of the Organization turn more smoothly, for example, getting Ambassadors and other high-ranking official to preside over and participate in diplomatic conferences. 

During her fifteen-year tenure as the IMO Legal Advisor and Secretary to the Legal Committee, seven international conventions/protocols were negotiated and adopted under the aegis of the Legal Committee and all of them, apart from the HNS Convention, are now in force, something she is very proud of. 

The final stage of her career occurred after she had retired from IMO (as everyone is obliged to do upon reaching a certain number of birthdays).  She was then free to accept an offer from the Comité Maritime International (CMI), to become its Secretary-General, a post she has held for the past five years.  The CMI is one of the NGOs in consultative status with IMO and shares the IMO’s objective of promoting the uniform application of international maritime law.  Her role is multi-faceted but a major part of it involves helping to organise the CMI’s annual conferences and other meetings. 

She has also accepted a three-year term as a Member of the AMSA Board, as well as an offer from the World Maritime University to become its Ethics Officer, a position that so far has largely involved the settlement of harassment and bullying cases. 

When asked about being a woman in a man’s world, she stated that for her, it had not proved to be an obstacle to her career progression.  She mentions that, when she began to attend IMO meetings in the capacity of Australian representative, back in the 1980s, she was one of only a handful of women in a hall full of men.  But, far from being an obstacle, she was able to transfer that into an advantage, as she was always noticed and listened to when she made an intervention, and did not feel “invisible”, as so many of the men were in that suit-filled Great Hall.  Indeed, she was elected Vice-Chair of the Legal Committee, a position she held for some years until “crossing the floor” to join the IMO Secretariat.   She was in fact only the second woman to be appointed as Director in the IMO - and was the first woman to be appointed as CMI Secretary-General in the CMI’s 125 year history. 

When asked about the allies she found along the way in her career, Dr. Balkin mentioned that, not unexpectedly, her allies were mostly from delegations which shared the Australian Government’s perspective on a particular topic.  One instance that she recalled happened during the Committee’s negotiations on the HNS Convention, when she was approached by several delegations from the Asia Pacific region to speak up on their behalf in the Committee.  It transpired that they had all made written submissions broadly adopting similar points of view, but she was chosen to be the spokesperson-- possibly because she didn’t mind courting controversy when it was in the interests of her delegation to do so. 

She also points out that, compared with the situation today, where there are so many more women delegates, during the period that comprised the 1980s and 1990s there were relatively few women delegates attending the Legal Committee –really only a handful—and they tended to provide one another with support, of both a moral and practical nature.  An example of the latter was a tip on how to keep warm in the chilly conference hall at IMO, which seemed to be maintained at a  very cold temperature - to accommodate men in three-piece suits. The secret?  To wear two pairs of tights! 

Dr Balkin was also fortunate in having the support during her time at IMO, of three extraordinary personalities:  in Judge Thomas Mensah, Alfred Popp and Prof Don Greig.  Tom (who among his many career moves had been the first IMO Legal Advisor) and Alfred (who for many years headed the Canadian delegation to the Legal committee and was its chair during her tenure at IMO) had been well known in maritime law circles well before she appeared on the scene and their friendship and encouragement was very much appreciated.  Her other major ally? Don Greig, her husband of 39 years without whose unwavering support for her career it would have been difficult to reach the highs she has gotten to. 

When asked about historic events or turning points she was a part of, Dr. Balkin mentions the winding up of the 1971 IOPC Fund Convention.  In its time, it had been a very useful tool in ensuring that victims of oil pollution incidents at sea were properly compensated for any damage caused. It had however effectively been superseded by a Protocol adopted in 1992, which substantially increased the level of compensation and the geographic scope within which compensation could be claimed. The problem was that, while most States Parties had migrated over to the 1992 Protocol, several States Parties had omitted to denounce the 1971 Convention which was fast running out of liquid assets.  The 1971 Fund Administrative Council consequently took the (not altogether popular) decision to wind up the 1971 Fund.  Dr Balkin was heavily involved in the rather complex legal process that followed. 

Finally, she points out that she has been witness to the increasing awareness over the past decades on the part of the maritime sector of the difficulties experienced by seafarers on a day-to-day basis, coupled with an appreciation of the fundamental role they play in the sea transport of goods that keeps the world economy afloat.  The perils faced by seafarers include the threat of abandonment and unjust imprisonment, as well as the danger posed by pirates, an issue which has now been recognised by the United Nations, thanks largely to the efforts of the IMO.  The statue erected in front of IMO Headquarters is a constant reminder of the debt the world owes to seafarers. 


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