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Human rights for transforming ocean governance

Elisa Morgera

One Ocean Hub, University of Strathclyde, UK

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This blog post addresses the human rights dimensions of ocean governance at different scales, and raises awareness of the importance of marine biodiversity for the protection of human rights.

On the day we celebrate the signing of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the One Ocean Hub wishes to raise awareness about the human rights dimensions of ocean governance at different scales, and the research gaps we are seeking to address. We look forward to exchanging views on these issues and receive feedback on our ongoing work with other human rights experts and practitioners, as well as human rights-holders that wish to share their lived experience with us.


1) Civil and political rights

South African researchers have documented ongoing challenges to the ability of small-scale fishing communities to have a voice in decision-making processes impacting on their lives and livelihoods. These challenges to the exercise of their civil and political rights have been exacerbated by the restrictions put in place to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. These findings appear to resonate with concerns worldwide, as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd, condemned governments’ decisions to “lower environmental standards, suspend environmental monitoring requirements, reduce environmental enforcement” as part of response measures to the COVID-19 pandemic. He underscored that these decisions are “likely to result in accelerated deterioration of the environment and have negative impacts on a wide range of human rights including the rights to life, health, water, culture, and food.”  In addition, Boyd cautioned against restricting public participation in environmental decision-making during the health emergency as it is crucial for people to know how the costs and benefits of different policies, and their effects on the environment and the human rights depending on it, are being weighed.

At the same time, South African researchers have been able to support the development of knowledge solidarity networks so that NGOs and universities could share information and respond to requests from small-scale fishing communities for supporting evidence or advice. This has also resulted in better understanding of the current and potential value added of academic researchers’ support to the claims of small-scale fishing communities, with a view to complementing the action that can be provided by civil society organizations and international development partners.

Another side of the research is better understanding whether existing national legislation is clear about the duties of public authorities in this respect and what are the challenges that decision-makers and managers face in fulfilling their human rights obligations. For instance, we are comparing laws in South Africa, Namibia, Ghana and Barbados to understand different extents to which public participation is guaranteed in marine spatial planning or other decision-making processes related to the conservation and use of the ocean. We have also been looking at how different international instruments need to be read together to understand the rights and responsibilities of all involved, such as in the case of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the context of food security and poverty eradication, which reflect, respectively, the views of rights-holders and of duty-bearers.

Furthermore, we have raised awareness about the need to consider systematically the inter-dependence of human rights and marine biodiversity in multilateral and bilateral fora, with a view to ensuring that the voices of human rights-holders, particularly indigenous peoples and small-scale fishing communities, are heard when decisions may be taken at the international scale that can have impacts on national and local scales (see also our contribution to this National Geographic article).

2) Social, economic and cultural rights

Various strands of sociological research in South Africa, including through the use of the innovative Empatheatre methodology, have also shed light on current challenges in protecting and realizing social, economic and cultural rights of small-scale fishing communities and indigenous peoples that have multiple and often little-understood connections to the ocean, including the deep seabed. These findings are currently being related to fisheries science research, notably with regard to better understanding how we can use modelling of fish mortality and impacts on food webs, including the impacts of climate change and ocean plastics, to respond to the needs of most vulnerable groups in terms of their right to food and right to culture.

In parallel, we are studying how global, regional and national policies on the blue economy relate to different Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and whether they take sufficiently into account that the SDGs are grounded in human rights and that their implementation needs to respect human rights (as highlighted by the Human Rights Council). Linked to this, we undertook legal research on the constraints placed by international investment law on governments to ensure the protection of human rights when foreign investors are involved in blue economy opportunities. In addition, we are reflecting on whether current international standards on business responsibility to respect human rights are fit for addressing the specific challenges arising in the context of the blue economy and in relation to marine ecosystem services. We have raised awareness about this issue, for instance, in the context of the International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Week with specific regard to the shipping industry, and we are reflecting on how it needs to be addressed in relation to ocean plastic.

3) Human rights and the (marine?) environment

Across the board, the One Ocean Hub is seeking to advance the understanding of the inter-dependence of human rights and the marine environment, with particular attention to marine biodiversity (considering that we still know less about deep-sea biodiversity and its wonders than we know about outer space). To that end, we are relying on the 2018 UN Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment to interrogate current practices in relation to environmental impact assessments and the licensing of marine extractive activities, as well as the creation and management of marine protected areas. We are also investigating matters related to the recognition and protection of the tenure of indigenous peoples’ and other groups’ ancestral territories linked to the ocean, including by carrying out research with communities that have been displaced in Namibia and reflecting on the local implications of the global history of marine dispossession. As Special Rapporteur Boyd has underscored,

“States have particular obligations to indigenous peoples and local communities and peasants. The top priority involves recognizing their land titles, tenures and rights, acknowledging the existence of different customs and systems, including collective ownership and governance models. States must ensure the effective participation of indigenous peoples in the creation of protected areas, their continued access to and use of traditional territories, including those within the protected areas (for … fishing…and cultural activities consistent with sustainable use) and a fair share of the benefits arising from conservation activities”

Equally, in his 2020 report on biodiversity and human rights, UN Special Rapporteur Boyd emphasized the importance of marine protected areas from a human rights perspective:

“When governed and managed equitably and effectively, [protected areas] also support human rights, contributing to health, well-being, food and water security, disaster risk reduction, climate mitigation and adaptation and local livelihoods. Well-managed marine protected areas protect and restore biodiversity, increasing yields in adjacent fisheries. In marine protected areas, species richness is 21 per cent higher and the biomass of fish is six times greater than in adjacent unprotected areas.”

These statements are crucial to raise awareness of the importance of marine biodiversity for the protection and realization of human rights. For that reason, the One Ocean Hub is advancing underlying marine biodiversity research that integrates the social sciences and the arts, and sharing inter-disciplinary research on the nexus between the ocean, climate change, biodiversity and human rights across different scales, including in relation to the benefits of marine protected areas, but also the need to recognise Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas, as well as the need to conserve biodiversity beyond marine protected areas (see, for instance, our evidence to the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee: transcript and video).

One of the key messages from the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment is that governments’ decisions must ensure a “reasonable balance” between environmental protection and other legitimate societal goals so as to prevent “unjustified, foreseeable infringements of human rights” (A/HRC/37/59). To support that goal in the context of decision-making on the ocean, we are conducting research on the least understood relationships between human rights and the marine environment. One such case are the multiple dimensions of the human right to health that are dependent on deep-sea ecosystems and genetic resources, which can support the call Special Rapporteur Boyd that States should “ensure that the proposed [international] agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction includes appropriate consideration of human rights.”

We are also raising awareness about human rights issues in marine sectors that may be perceived to be more remote from human rights-holders on the coasts, such as shipping (see presentations starting at 41’). Equally, we are reflecting on how integrating human rights considerations in ocean governance can lead to transformative approaches for inclusive and sustainable decision-making processes on the ocean, with a view to distilling principles that can support constructive interactions between marine specialists (across different marine and social sciences backgrounds) and coastal stakeholders.

4) Legal empowerment, children’s and women’s human rights

The UN Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment also underscore the heightened obligation for States to those in particularly vulnerable situations, such as women and children. The One Ocean Hub research in Ghana has been focusing in particular on the situation of women and children in small-scale fishing communities,  with a view to better understanding to what extent their human rights may be negatively affected by internal dynamics within these communities, as well as broader impacts on these communities, including declining fish stocks, climate change, and complex interactions with large-scale fishing actors (see also here at 54’ and here). The issue of “Saiko fishing” (“trawlers target[ting] the staple catch of Ghanaian canoe fishers and sell it back to fishing communities at a profit”, as covered by international media) shows how entangled small- and large-scale fishing activities can be, while competing with each other over marine resources on the brink of collapse, and being linked to illegality (which is also an area increasingly researched under the Hub; see here and here) and the disappearance of those fighting against over-fishing. As former Special Rapporteur Knox emphasized, “States must protect biodiversity defenders as human rights defenders, including activists that protect components of ecosystems whose benefits to humans may be less obvious, such as endangered species.”

In addition, across the Hub, we have been exploring how to best support gender equality in ocean research and ocean governance, and how to enhance ocean literacy, by integrating marine sciences and arts. The latter could support significantly children and youth to develop their views on the “long-term environmental challenges that will shape the world in which they will spend their lives” on the basis of cutting-edge, integrated science, thereby enabling them to exercise their political and other human rights to shape decisions on the ocean. It equally supports duty-bearers – public authorities that need to protect and fulfil children’s right to environmental education.

More broadly, we are reflecting on the role of research integrating marine sciences, social sciences and the arts to better understand how human rights can be “of value and [be] used in addressing the pressing issues people face in their daily lives” through bottom-up initiatives that travels across scales (see this example) because “many human rights problems are rooted in … global business practices that … bypass the boundaries of the nation-state” and in global phenomena, such as climate change and other threats to ocean health.

5) Right to science

Finally, the One Ocean Hub is using the lens of the human right to science to explore questions related to: the protection and integration of traditional knowledge in ocean science and policy; fairness and equity in marine bio-discovery; equitable access to deep-sea research; and transdisciplinary research. The human right to science is a less known, but long-standing and legally binding, right that is protected internationally with a view to ensuring that science respects and contributes to the realization of other human rights (particularly those of the most vulnerable) and that everybody (whether they’re scientists or not) can share fairly and equitably in the benefits arising from scientific advancements.

One dimension of the human right to science overlaps with the human right of indigenous peoples and other communities to the protection, respect and integration of their knowledge. As Special Rapporteur Boyd noted,

“Thanks to [indigenous peoples’, local communities’ and peasants’] knowledge, customary legal systems and cultures, they have proved effective at conserving nature…States must take appropriate measures to promote and protect the traditional knowledge, innovation and practices of …people working in rural areas, including …fisheries…relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.”

The One Ocean Hub is both studying how the customary laws and approaches to ocean management of indigenous peoples and other communities are understood anthropologicallyhistorically, sociologically and legally in national and international ocean governance processes, including climate adaptation planning (from 26’) and fisheries management. In addition, we are exploring how the arts can support understanding of the complementarity of “modern” and “traditional” ocean knowledge (see, for instance, this animation). By integrating marine and social sciences with the arts, we are also seeking to contribute to the integration of traditional knowledge in modelling and scenario planning related to fisheries and other marine resources.

In addition, the One Ocean Hub is studying from multiple disciplinary perspectives the need for partnership-based approaches to international collaborations on marine bio-discovery, in light of international obligations on fair and equitable benefit-sharing from genetic resources and with a view to contributing to ongoing international debates on bio-discovery in marine areas beyond national jurisdiction and from digital sequence information.

We are also looking into the role and responsibility of research funders in enabling fair and equitable international ocean research partnerships, as well as to our own practices as researchers and the lessons learnt in other Global North/Global South research collaborations, which we have captured through the co-development of the Hub’s Code of Practice. As part of this research, we are reflecting on the role of international law and guidelines in supporting inter-disciplinary research that can contribute to human rights and the environment (see webinar here).

This is based on the understanding that if we wish ocean governance at different scales to be more inclusive of different knowledge systems, more transparent, and better able to respond to multiple concerns (including multiple inter-dependencies between human rights and the marine environment), we need to achieve such inclusiveness, transparency, responsiveness and interconnectedness in ocean research. Otherwise how could decision-makers and managers play their part, without the evidence base and innovative tools that researchers provide to them for engaging in constructive dialogues across sectors and values? To that end, we are seeking to understand what current barriers there are to more equitable access to ocean (and particularly deep-sea) research, both from a Global North/Global South perspective as well as from an individual perspective, and their implications for a more effective ocean science-policy interface.

We are further grappling with how trans-disciplinarity (the genuine involvement of academic and non-academic partners in knowledge production) can be embedded systematically in ocean science (see herehere and here), as this can be both a means and an end to ensure respect for human rights by ensuring non-discrimination, setting priorities that respond to the needs of the most vulnerable, enhancing transparency, and supporting multiple benefits across the SDGs and the various inter-dependencies between human rights and the marine environment.

We look forward to receiving comments and questions on this blog or being in touch with interested researchers, practitioners and rights-holders here.