An indivisible whole: negotiating the fate of the ocean

Critical differences of opinion over how, or even whether, the high seas should be subject to a governance regime led to sluggish progress at times at international negotiations in New York recently. Essam Yassin Mohammed spells out how he thinks things need to change.

Essam Yassin Mohammed's picture
Essam Yassin Mohammed, head of blue economy, IIED's Shaping Sustainable Markets research group
05 September 2019
A rock covered in barnacles

The barnacles attached to a rock in the high seas are treated differently legally from the rock itself (Photo: Alison and Fil, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

The health of the ocean is key to our survival. It’s not just a supplier of food or a sink for CO2 emissions – it’s a vital source of the air we breathe. Wrecking the ocean threatens humanity’s existence.

Despite this, there is a major gap in how we manage and protect our ocean and the expansive life it harbours. An international treaty clarifies the rights and duties of states for up to 200 nautical miles from shorelines. Beyond that, the vast reaches of the ocean, commonly known as the high seas, remain largely ungoverned. No global legal regime exists to regulate activities in these waters.

In the last two weeks of August, UN member states met for the third time in New York to attempt to redress this gap and negotiate the terms of a possible future governance agreement.

Divergent views

Even though governments were provided with a draft text to focus discussion, I do not think much progress was made. There was a critical divergence of views between the so-called developed and developing countries. Perhaps the most critical of all was whether marine genetic resources could be appropriated or owned by any state, individual or firm at all.

Affluent countries which have both technical and financial means to exploit resources in the high seas, want to maintain the status quo – demanding the principle of ‘Mare liberum’ (freedom of the seas) is enshrined in the agreement. ‘Mare liberum’ means anyone and everyone is free to explore and exploit high seas resources.

Conversely developing countries are demanding that the high seas is recognised as the ‘common heritage of mankind’. All activities would have to be scrutinised, marine genetic resources could not be appropriated, and any benefits accrued would be shared equitably.

This dichotomy between the two apparently ‘conflicting’ principles has prevented developed and developing countries seeing eye to eye.

Slicing and dicing the ocean is absurd

Here’s a fact. Under the Law of the Sea treaty, while the seabed is recognised as the common heritage of mankind – no nation can claim ownership over the seabed or its non-living resources – the water column above is a free for all.

Living marine organisms lying on the seabed or buried in it are not part of the common heritage of mankind. At the risk of upsetting my ‘law of the sea’ enthusiast friends, I think slicing and dicing the ocean into different scientifically impossible and hypothetically incomprehensible sections is absurd.

Personally I see the ocean as an indivisible whole, and so do my friends in the scientific community and representatives from the developing world. There is one interconnected ocean ecosystem. It is unscientific to have a separate legal regime for, say, a barnacle (freedom of the seas) and a rock (common heritage of mankind) to which it has glued itself.

The only way to guarantee sustainable management and conservation of the interconnected ocean ecosystem is by recognising it as the common heritage of mankind. It is there to benefit humanity as a whole – whether affluent or not.

What is ironic is that the very countries that pledge to give 0.7% of their wealth to developing nations and position themselves as stewards of the environment, are advocating strongly in favour of maintaining the status quo.

Essentially they are saying, ‘we don’t want our exploration and exploitation of marine resources in the high seas to be regulated, nor do we want to be obligated to share the benefits with the rest of the world’.

The world is watching. Our future selves are watching. The next generation is watching. I could not emphasise more the fundamental importance of all nations doing whatever it takes to safeguard marine life and the people who depend on it to survive.

With the fourth round of negotiations expected to take place in the first half of 2020, we all need to appreciate the gravity of the challenges the ocean is facing and the future impacts for humanity and reach an agreement.

Let’s aim high and collectively raise a global ambition to protect our interconnected and indivisible ocean. Status quo is not an option.

Protecting our ocean podcast

Essam Yassin Mohammed contributed to the first episode of IIED's new pdcast, which will examine the steps being taken towards a more secure future for people and planet. 'Protecting our ocean' focuses on work to protect the ocean and marine environments, and includes a focus on the international negotiations on how to secure the biodiversity of the world’s ocean.

Listen below or on IIED's Soundcloud channel. Alternatively, the podcast is available on a series of apps.