Connecting the Dots on the Oceans

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OceansThumbnailWritten by Alvin Leong (LLM, JD), an energy and environmental policy advisor and fellow at the Pace Global Center for Environmental Legal Studies.

The global ocean is in peril, driven by years of over-exploitation of marine resources, destructive fishing, overfishing, marine pollution, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and weak governance, and increasingly threatened by climate change.

Will this protracted, dispiriting decline prove to be irreversible?

Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical letter Laudato Si’ [1], has written powerfully about the state of the oceans, particularly in paragraphs 40 and 41. In paragraph 174, the Pope goes deeply into the legal dimensions:

“Let us also mention the system of governance of the oceans. International and regional conventions do exist, but fragmentation and the lack of strict mechanisms of regulation, control and penalization end up undermining these efforts. The growing problem of marine waste and the protection of the open seas represent particular challenges. What is needed, in effect, is an agreement on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called ‘global commons’.” [2]

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is to be part of the Post-2015 Development Agenda to be adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, contain an “Ocean SDG” (SDG 14), which is to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. [3]

While the SDGs are not legally binding, they do represent the overarching development norms and priorities of the international community, adopted by consensus. Thus, the implementation of the Ocean SDG [4] could prove vital in ameliorating the “fragmentation” that the Pope lucidly writes about and could provide pathways for more effective “systems of governance” for the global ocean commons.

In that connection, the Permanent Representative of Fiji to the United Nations has proposed a Triennial Global Oceans & Seas Summit to provide accountability for the implementation of the Ocean SDG. To ensure coherence, the Post-2015 review and follow-up process, in particular the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), should be carefully crafted to enable the Triennial Global Oceans & Seas Summit, and associated processes, to fit neatly within this broader framework.

In addition, given the undeniable link between the global ocean and climate change, how do we connect the dots between the Post-2015/SDG processes and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) processes?

Article 4.1(d) of the Convention states the parties’ commitment to: “[p]romote sustainable management, and promote and cooperate in the conservation and enhancement, as appropriate, of sinks and reservoirs of all greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol, including biomass, forests and oceans as well as other terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems.” [5] As such, there is clear authority in the text for the UNFCCC processes to include consideration of the sustainable management and conservation and enhancement of oceans and marine ecosystems.

Article 7.2(l) of the Convention requires the Conference of the Parties (COPs) to: “[s]eek and utilize, where appropriate, the services and cooperation of, and information provided by, competent international organizations and intergovernmental and non-governmental bodies.[6]” As such, the COPs could interface and collaborate with the Triennial Global Oceans & Seas Summit organization, or a new monitoring body that can be created in connection with the summits. This monitoring body could be modeled on the Global Ocean Accountability Board proposed by the Global Ocean Commission [7].

The international community has a unique opportunity in 2015 to put in place strong and effective mechanisms to ensure the health of the global ocean for the sake of the planet and future generations, including:

  • Establishing a Triennial Global Oceans & Seas Summit and an associated body for monitoring.
  • Connecting the dots between the summit organization and the Post-2015 review and follow-up process.
  • Connecting the dots between the summit organization and the UNFCCC processes.

An integrated and holistic approach to stem the decline and restore the vitality of the global ocean is urgently needed. The post-2015 intergovernmental pathways are starting to come into focus, and as such political leadership at this inflection point in global development is critical.

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  1. Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care of Our Common Home (May 24, 2015), available at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.
  2. Ibid.
  3. See Open Working Group Proposal for Sustainable Development Goals, available at https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgsproposal.
  4. Statement by Ambassador Peter Thomson at the Sustainable Development Goals Intergovernmental Negotiations on Follow-Up and Review, May 20, 2015, available at https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/14389fiji.pdf.
  5. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), available at http://unfccc.int/key_documents/the_convention/items/2853.php.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The Global Ocean Commission Report 2014, “From Decline to Recovery: A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean,” available at http://www.globaloceancommission.org/.

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