Oceans need better legal protection

Climate change, pollution and overfishing are taking our oceans to the brink of disaster. To prevent further, irreversible exploitation of this natural resource, the oceans should be granted ‘common heritage of mankind’ status under international law, argues a German scientific advisory body. Elana Caro reports from Zurich.


The oceans are under threat from all sides. Climate change is causing them to rise, warm and acidify, while humankind’s greed is leading to heavy overfishing, pollution and exploitation of “the Earth’s last great source” of raw materials. These are the stark conclusions of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WGBU), an independent, scientific advisory body established by the German federal government in 1992 in the run-up to the Rio Earth Summit.

The WGBU publishes flagship reports every two years as it monitors national and international policies on sustainable development and the environment, provides early warning of new issue areas, raises public awareness on global change issues, and identifies gaps in research, initiates new research and makes recommendations for action.

Old problem, new approach

Back in 2006, it produced a special report on the oceans in which it outlined the severe consequences that CO2 emissions will have on the world’s oceans. It is now returning to the oceans with its latest flagship report called “World in Transition – Governing the Marine Heritage”. At 362 pages, the report begins where it ended eight years ago: Despite the numerous international treaties and voluntary commitments, the oceans are facing a threat greater than ever before. Even the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – the so-called ‘constitution of the oceans’ – does not have enough force to protect our blue continent.

Desperate times need drastic measures, and so the WGBU outlines a bold and innovative vision: In view of the oceans’ poor condition and the foreseeable increase in their overexploitation and pollution, all marine zones, with the exception of territorial seas, should be declared as ‘common heritage of mankind’. This is a principle of international law that holds that certain elements of the Earth (and cosmos) may be defined as common to all humankind’s heritage and should be protected from exploitation by individual nation states, groups of states or corporations. These defined elements should be held in trust for future generations and used for the benefit of all humankind.

From outer space to the depths of the oceans

The concept of common heritage of mankind was first mentioned in the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which holds that “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind”. In 1964 it became a legal obligation in the Outer Space Treaty. But even more relevant to the urgent crisis facing our oceans, it was included in 1994s Law of the Sea Treaty to protect the seabed beyond national jurisdiction and its mineral resources.

From a legal perspective, designating the oceans as common heritage to mankind would mean that no one nation, group of nations or corporation would be allowed to overexploit the oceans and everyone would have to share in whatever resources are extracted from the oceans. In other words, this designation would legally oblige the entire world to actively pursue a policy of conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, argues the WBGU.

Protect the vulnerable Arctic

The WBGU recommends setting up a World Oceans Organisation together with regional institutions for sustainable marine management to ensure that the oceans will also be available to future generations. These institutions would have the authority to intervene when states fail in their responsibilities. The WBGU also suggests giving the Law of the Sea Treaty authority to place sanctions on countries that breach the current convention. States should even be brought before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea if they fail to meet their protection obligations.

The report sets out a few examples of how this could work. For instance, illegal fishing would have to be combated by funding monitoring and control capacities, especially in developing countries. The use of renewable energy from the sea acquired in a sustainable manner should be better promoted. This would make it possible to abandon offshore oil and gas production and the climate-damaging mining of methane hydrate, especially in the vulnerable Arctic, with its sensitive ecosystems.


Photo credit: Alex Proimos/Creative Commons

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