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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 15, Number 2, 1998 (UNU, 1998, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentWater for sustainable growth: "Nor any drop to drink"
View the documentThe work of UNU/INWEH: Improving water management
View the documentStanding in line for water: Cooperation on the Ganges and Brahmaputra
View the documentHydropolitics along the Danube
View the documentCity water: 21st century challenge
View the documentNew ways to govern the seas
Open this folder and view contentsRavaged seas in Central Asia
View the documentHistory's plagued seas: The Mediterranean
View the documentClimate, history and water
View the documentWater: The 21st century's oil?
View the documentA chemical eye on water
View the documentWhen oil troubles waters

New ways to govern the seas

By Elizabeth Mann-Borgese

Both the Latin and Greek roots of the word "govern" denote the act of steering or piloting a boat - reflecting, perhaps, the human desire to somehow master the complexities of the trackless expanses of the sea. Governance of the oceans remains an item near the top of the environmental agenda. Life itself took shape in the seas - a precious biological storehouse where our weather is shaped and much of our nourishment first enters the ecological food chain. A range of interlinked human activities now threaten the marine environment - through polluted run-offs, coastal degradation, or lessening of the ocean's ability to supply life-giving oxygen.

Elizabeth Mann-Borgese has been an eloquent and forceful voice in defense of the oceans' seminal importance to human existence. In the following article which she wrote for Work in Progress, she discusses some of the issues involved in the vision of the 1998 International Year of the Ocean, in particular, the need for a more integrated approach to ocean management. Dr. Mann-Borgese is with the International Ocean Institute in Malta. Her new book, The Oceanic Circle, has just been published by the UNU Press. - Editor

The International Year of the Ocean - 1998 - is now drawing to a close. What will it leave behind?

Many important manifestations of concerns about the seas have taken place: ocean exhibits, marine technology shows, children's art competitions, music on the oceans. Thousand of papers have been read at hundreds of conferences; a World Commission on the Oceans has been formed. Reports have been tabled.

What will remain? What should remain?

A new awareness has to be created. Especially in the Western countries, we have to learn that we are not the lords of the universe - not vis-à-vis the poor in our own countries, not vis-à-vis our non-human fellow creatures and their natural habitat. Other cultures and peoples, who knew these things better than we did in the West for the past few thousand years, should remember this, and forget some of the things they have "learned" from the West during recent centuries or decades.

The very nature of the untamable ocean, "the majesty of the oceanic circle," forces us to think differently, to act differently than we do on land. And, as the land is already largely exhausted and spoiled and our civilizations are driven to the coasts and spilling their industrial revolutions into the seas and oceans, we have to learn to adjust to the different way of thinking and acting.

What should remain of the Year of the Ocean is a new vision of governance based on a different relationship between humans and between humans and nature - for as we treat nature, we treat one another; and if we kill nature, we kill ourselves.

A broad-base understanding has to be generated of where we are now in this process of moving in the direction of this new vision, and what the next practical steps might be.

The adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982 was hailed by the UN Secretary-General as the most important event since the adoption of the United Nations

Charter itself. It is indeed a breakthrough document containing the seed of a new world order for the next century.

The Convention's principle of the Common Heritage of Mankind, which cannot be appropriated by any State, company or individual, but must be managed for the benefit of all people, reserved for exclusively peaceful purposes and conserved for future generations, foreshadows new economic theories transcending both the centrally planned and free-market systems. Although originally to be applied only to the area and resources of the international seabed, with no effects on the high seas above or the areas under national jurisdiction, it is quickly transcending this limitation. The second fundamental principle of the Convention, that the problems of ocean spaces are closely interrelated and must be considered as a whole, in fact contradicts this limitation. The academic community has failed, thus far, to read the two principles in their conjunction. History, as well as logic, will teach us to do so.

The Agreement on Straddling on fish stocks and highly migratory stocks, further developing the letter and spirit of the Convention, for all practical purposes extends the concept of the Common Heritage to the management of living resources, in the ocean as a whole. Fish stocks on both sides of the boundary between national jurisdiction and the high seas are to be managed sustainably, for the benefit of mankind as a whole, including future generations. Rules and regulations on both sides of the boundary have to be harmonized, with the assistance of regional fisheries organizations. The "freedom to fish" on the high seas has been replaced by the principle of the Common Heritage.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, 1992) extended the principle further to include the land. "Sustainable Development" will have to be based on the principle of the Common Heritage of Mankind, or it cannot be realized at all. All post-UNCED Conventions, Agreements and Programmes reflect the new principles of the Common Heritage of Mankind with its economic, environmental, disarmament and equity concerns and implications, and the principle of the interdependence of problems and solutions.

On the basis of these new philosophical and legal concepts, the "UNCED process," furthermore, has begun to develop new models of governance, from the level of coastal community to those of the nation-state, the region and the United Nations. These emerging forms of governance must be comprehensive, including the governmental as well as the international levels. The emergence of the non-governmental organizations and their new role, at national as well as international levels, is indeed one of the more interesting phenomena of the last two decades. They must be consistent - there must be a "fit" between decision-making processes at different dimensions of governance - or else decision-making cannot function. They must be participatory -bottom-up not top-down. And they must be interdisciplinary.

"Co-management" - bridging local and national planning and decision-making and including all users of coastal and ocean spaces and resources - is a term characterizing developments the community level. "Co-management" forms are making their appearance more and more frequently in all parts of the world.

"Interministerial commissions" appear to be the most promising way of restructuring national governments to enable them to manage the closely interrelated problems of coastal and ocean space under their jurisdiction.

The revitalization of the UNEP-initiated regional seas programme is proceeding. It is broadening the agenda of regional organizations, from a sectorial approach limited to conservation of the marine environment to the concept of "sustainable development" and the assumption of new responsibilities. A major new charge is the implementation of the Global Programme of Action to Prevent Pollution from Land-based Activities. This requires conceptual and institutional renovation and innovation. Leading the development are the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Here the establishment of a Mediterranean Commission on Sustainable Development is a breakthrough event. It has created a new relationship between the government and the non-governmental sectors, which are treated, in this Commission, as equals. It has included coastal communities in its membership. It has transcended, for the first time the "sectoral approach" by calling, at its highest levels, not only on Ministers from the Department of the Environment but also from all other Departments and Ministers involved in one way or another in issues of coastal and ocean management. Like Commissions need to be established in the context of all Regional Seas Programmes.

At the global level of the United Nations, a number of institutional innovations are stirring. It is my fervent hope that at least one of them will materialize before the Year of the Ocean comes to its end.

When UNCLOS III came to its end in 1982, with the adoption and opening for signature of the Law of the Sea Convention, it was clear that there no longer existed a body in the UN system capable of "considering the closely interrelated problems of ocean space as a whole." During the decade-and-a-half that has passed since then, the need for such a body became ever more glaring.

The problem arises from a lacuna in the Convention itself. In this respect, as in some others, the Convention is unfinished business, a process rather than a product. Unlike other Treaties, which generally provide for regular meetings of State parties to review and, eventually, to revise such Treaties, the Law of the Sea Convention severely limits the mandate of the meetings of State Parties. It is restricted, after the establishment phase, to the periodic election of Judges to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the approval of the expenses at that institution, and amendments to the Statue thereof. The mandate of the Assembly of the International Seabed Authority, the only other body comprising all State parties, obviously is limited to seabed issues. Yet a Convention which, in our rapidly changing times, does not provide for periodic review and revision, will soon be bypassed by history.

Theoretically, there would be three ways of dealing with the problem:

One could, perhaps, first informally and later by amendment, broaden the mandate of the meetings of State Parties, enabling them to review the implementation of the Convention and to formulate an integrated ocean policy.

Or one could broaden the mandate of the Assembly of the International Seabed Authority, considering that, on the one hand, seabed mining is not going to require very much time for the foreseeable future, while, on the other, "the problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and need to be considered as a whole."

Or the General Assembly of the United Nations could be given the responsibility for examining, periodically, all the interrelated problems of ocean space and generating an integrated ocean policy.

The first two alternatives would have the advantage of utilizing existing and otherwise under-utilized bodies for a function for which they would be well prepared. Both would have the disadvantage of a membership that is less than universal. It should also be noted that "closely related problems of ocean space" arise also within other post-UNCED regimes with a different membership. The first two alternatives would not be suitable for dealing with ocean-related interactions between various Convention regimes, e.g., the overlaps between the Biodiversity and Climate Conventions and the Law of the Sea.

As emphasized in the Report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations,* it is only the General Assembly, with its universal membership, that has the capability of dealing with all the closely interrelated problems of ocean space, including those arising from the interactions of various Convention regimes. The disadvantage of the General Assembly, however, is that it cannot possibly devote sufficient time to these problems which would require several weeks, at least every second year.

* Doc. A/51/645

To solve this problem, the General Assembly should establish a Committee of the Whole to devote the time needed for the making of an integrated ocean policy. Representatives of the upgraded Regional Seas Programmes, the Specialized Agencies of the UN system with ocean-related mandates, as well as the non-governmental sector should participate in the work of this Committee of the Whole.

This sort of "Ocean Assembly" should be serviced by the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea as well as by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

At the United Nations in New York, one may notice a certain "Law-of-the-Sea fatigue," Four new institutions have already been established: the International Seabed Authority, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the Continental Shelf Commission, and the Meeting of State Parties. For God's sake, that is enough! If there be need for more, let us shove it off to the Agencies, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, the Food and Agriculture Organization, etc.

But none of these institutions, whether old or new, is able "to consider the closely interrelated problems of ocean space as a whole." There is a danger that the achievement of UNCLOS III -the creation of one comprehensive regime of ocean governance, with subsystems in the Specialized Agencies and their Conventions and Programmes - will be lost and the regime will again be splintered between various totally independent Convention regimes. This danger should be avoided. It would mean chaos. It would frustrate all efforts to achieve sustainable ocean and coastal development and conserve the natural environment, the world climate and biodiversity.

If we want to make 1998, the International Year of the Ocean, a landmark (or seamark) year, we should take the decision to create this Committee of the Whole, this "Ocean Assembly." That is the one that is really needed to make all the other function better. It does not really cost anybody anything. All it takes is political will.