Since the founding of the ultimately ill-fated League of Nations in 1920, global governance has been dominated by a succession of supranational bodies, culminating in the foundation of the United Nations and the diverse Bretton Woods institutions at the end of the Second World War. These organisations have largely worked to ensure peace between the Western powers in the security sphere but also in finance and trade. In a changing world, however, with the rise of new powers, it is imperative that the voices and needs of emerging nations are also adequately reflected. Given that 21st century global concerns focus far more than ever before on hybrid threats, human rights and the environment, is it time to draw a line under the past 99 years of global governance and look to re-evaluate and reform our established systems?
Oceans cover 71% of the surface and contain 99% of the volume of all living space on our planet. Besides providing a large source of global food, fueling economic development, and protecting human health, the ocean also acts as a massive climate regulator, emitting half of Earth′s oxygen and absorbing 25% of carbon emissions. The OECD estimates that coastal and oceanic economic activities contribute over €1.3tn to the global economy.
Yet the outsized importance of the ocean stands in stark contrast to the comparatively scant attention the global community pays to improving international governance over the seas. The Paris Agreement, for instance, mentions the word “ocean” just once, in a preambular paragraph “Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including ocean …”. More focus has been placed on discovering outer space than probing the bottom depths of our oceans. For many, the space race seems to be more important than understanding our own place of living.
It is not as if there were not a lot of bodies devoted to the topic. On the contrary, the global architecture on ocean governance is so incredibly diffuse that it renders enforcement of its laws and norms rather weak. It seems that both everyone and no one is charged with taking care of the ocean.
The following overview of many of the overlapping international organisations, intergovernmental bodies, conferences, and civic groups tasked with governing the use of our oceans will serve to demonstrate the startling complexity of this current institutional muddle.
Outside of the FAO, there are 17 RFMOs that manage fisheries but are also ill-equipped to face the challenges of fighting heinous crimes
London, for instance, is home to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) which oversees the safety and security of shipping and pollution from vessels. The IMO founded two universities geared towards maritime studies: one located in Malmö, Sweden – known as the World Maritime University – and another located in Malta which specialises in legal issues – the International Maritime Law Institute.
Meanwhile, Rome is host to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which has some fisheries responsibilities, including combatting ‘Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated Fishing’ (IUUF) – although it has no actual jurisdiction on prosecuting crimes in fishing industries. Outside of the FAO, there are 17 ‘regional fisheries management’ organisations (RFMOs) that manage fisheries but are also ill-equipped to face the challenges of fighting heinous crimes, such as slavery at sea and gun smuggling, perpetrated by IUUF vessels. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) in Vienna is working with Interpol and a few countries including Indonesia to fight crimes in fisheries so far with limited global support. The UNODC has a manual on maritime crimes, but not for crimes on fisheries.
Safety of navigation from the point of view of proper chart making and hydrographic survey is under the purview of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) in Monaco, while it is the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) branch in Nairobi that is tasked with developing new marine and coastal strategies. On top of all of that, the marine science itself is taken care of by yet another body, the International Oceanographic Commission (IOC) which is based in Paris because under the aegis of UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The UN Headquarters in New York hosts a number of ocean-related gatherings, such as the Meeting of the State Parties of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), or the Commission on the Limit of the Continental Shelf and the Ocean Conference launched in 2017. These sessions are serviced by the UN′s Division for Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea. Among the organisations created by UNCLOS, Hamburg hosts the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), while seabed mining is the mandate of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) based in Kingston, Jamaica.
As governments remain uncertain about how to govern the seas, criminals will likely continue to smuggle people, drugs, weapons, and rare animals
On top of the aforementioned intergovernmental organisations and treaties, there are also numerous ocean initiatives organised by individual countries, such as the Our Ocean Conference that was the brainchild of the former US Secretary of State John Kerry. Civil society has also become organised on the topic of ocean affairs, such as the Global Ocean Commission that was established as a partnership between the Pew Charitable Trust, Sommerville College and the University of Oxford.
Under this complicated array of international organisations, a research vessel conducting a seabed mining survey is likely to have comply with rules of ISA, IHO, IMO, and possibly even IOC. And yet for issues of basic safety and environmental sustainability these organisations have not been effective at coalescing to confront threats to our oceans. For example, these organisations have not been able to deal with the pollution caused by the staggering emission of sulphur oxides (SOX) by cruise liners around Europe, which produced ten times more SOX than the whole of 260mn cars in Europe in 2017.
In the meantime, as governments remain uncertain about how to govern the seas, criminals will likely continue to smuggle people, drugs, weapons, and rare animals, and IUU Fishing will likely continue to be rampant. The FAO will likely say that crimes are not within its mandate and the UNODC may argue that fisheries are not their responsibilities. Interpol can liaise but it is not an international organisation with a mandate to create global norms to be implemented globally.
Meanwhile the UN Security Council may create new international laws, such as sanctions, but it will remain absent on the issue of transnational crimes in fisheries. The World Trade Organization (WTO), on the other hand, does little to help as it contributes to the IUUF issue through fisheries subsidy. This has led to 26mn tonnes of fish being lost to IUUF.
One of the most significant flaws in the global governance of the seas is the lack of available information
Pressures against our oceans are mounting: temperatures are increasing, ocean levels are rising, coasts are retreating, coral reefs are dying, fish are disappearing, plastics and pollution are overwhelming, large hurricanes are appearing more frequently, mangrove forests are declining, coastal populations are migrating, and countries are disappearing. All the while, environmental threats have not eliminated – indeed they may have even exacerbated – more traditional geopolitical concerns like piracy or state conflicts at sea.
Given all of these challenges, we need a comprehensive and integrated approach on ocean governance that encompasses all oceanic and coastal matters. Unfortunately, the prospect of this happening is rather disconcerting. The UN Secretary-General in his annual ocean report elaborated that “ … the ability of the international community to strengthen international cooperation and coordination and adopt comprehensive and integrated approaches regarding oceans remains a significant challenge.” The report went further by concluding that “Despite the progress made by the international community to address challenges facing the oceans, the health, resilience and productivity of the oceans continues to deteriorate.”
One of the most significant flaws in the global governance of the seas is the lack of available information, specifically, the transparent and open data about the state of the oceans provided by individual countries around the world. By encouraging all countries, individually or through their own regional organisations, to publish and submit information on the state and health of their waters and coastal areas, the UN would be better equipped to assess the challenges to our oceans. Countries have already agreed to similar exercises in other areas under the Paris Agreement. Extending the self-assessment to oceans would be highly desirable, especially given the fact that the state of our oceans is deteriorating and that we, as human beings, have so far been unsuccessful in keeping our oceans healthy and secured.
Ocean governance may not have the romanticism of outer space or have a grip on public attention like calls for a space force, but it is nonetheless a crucial topic. It cannot be ignored if the international community is to address the common environmental and geopolitical challenges of our times.