Discussing deep-seabed mining at the Human Rights Council 

The human rights concerns about deep-seabed mining have been highlighted at the Human Rights Council. On 28 March 2024, the Permanent Missions of Costa Rica, Ecuador, Germany, Morocco, Panama, Samoa and Switzerland, organised with the Dona Bertarelli Philanthropy foundation, IUCN, the OHCHR, and the One Ocean Hub, an event to explore the links between human rights and deep-seabed mining, and the need for precaution, on the side-lines of the Human Rights Council meeting at the Palais des Nations, Geneva. The event followed a video-message by Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur for Environmental Human Rights Defenders under the Aarhus Convention, and by Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights. The latter had co-signed a letter to underscore the international human rights obligations of States and responsibility of business in the exploration and exploitation of minerals in the deep seabed from the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights and by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. 

Hub contributions 

Hub Director Elisa Morgera underscored that human rights are not explicitly addressed in the law of the sea, because at the time of its adoption the links between the marine environment and human rights were not well understood, notably with regard to the uniqueness, fragility of deep-sea biodiversity and its value for multiple dimensions of human wellbeing and climate regulation. She then called attention to recent scientific evidence revealing the long-lasting, in some cases irreversible, negative impacts arising from deep-seabed mining; and the need for an evolutive interpretation of the law of the sea in line with international human rights law and international environmental law. Accordingly, States have obligations, individually and as part of international cooperation, to: 

  • prevent reasonably foreseeable negative impacts on human rights arising from environmental degradation; 
  • prevent disproportionate negative impacts on specific human rights holders, to avoid discrimination; this is the case of Indigenous peoples, ecosystem-dependent communities, women, and children; and 
  • regulate private actors through substantive, proportional and non-retrogressive laws, policies, institutions and management regimes, as well as effective monitoring, investigation, and enforcement mechanisms. 

She also reflected that deep-seabed mining could negatively impact on everyone’s human right to a healthy environment, human rights to health, food and water, as well as cultural rights including spiritual connections to the deep seabed. She further noted that deep-seabed mining can worsen climate change, because carbon stored in bottom waters or sediments of the deep sea is removed from the atmosphere for millions of years; and fish and other marine organisms are key players in the global carbon cycle, because they sequester organic carbon as they live, die, sink, and decompose at depth. (Mariani et al., 2020).

In addition, she notes the relevance of the human right to science, as we currently lack sufficient scientific knowledge on how to avoid negative impacts on humans arising from deep-seabed mining, and the need to protect environmental human rights defenders, who should be able to operate free from threats, harassment, intimidation and violence at the ISA. She concluded by prioritising the application of precaution in the light of the need to protect children through their life courses, and public participation, notably by Indigenous peoples

Hub early-career researcher Holly Niner (University of Plymouth) described the threats the deep-seabed mining pose to globally important habitats and species. Through direct and indirect impact pathways, the largely pristine, highly structure and diverse ecosystems are set at risk of permanent loss. Mitigation and avoidance of these impacts is challenged by a lack of data on pressures such as plume behaviour and oceanographic conditions at these locations.

Accordingly, the scale over which these indirect impacts are likely to occur is largely unknown and most of the effects remain unstudied. Attempts to describe potential impacts often fail to consider their significance within the full cumulative context of an interconnected ocean under pressure from climate change and other activities. The cumulative assessment needed to do this, and particularly cumulative assessment in remote offshore environments is difficult and often insufficiently captures all available information we have that indicates potential risk of harm. This leads to, identified impacts often being described as localised or insignificant as compared to the vast scale of deep-sea and open-ocean environments. 

Holly outlined that while there are huge uncertainties in terms of ecological knowledge and the applications to quantify, understand and test the significance of impacts, sufficient information is currently available that tells us very clearly that deep-sea environments are fundamental to many ecosystem services of global importance. These include those ecosystem services as basic as climate regulation, food and nutrition and human wellbeing. It behoves society to ensure that when faced with the certainty that biodiversity loss will take place if deep-seabed mining takes place, that these losses are considered against the backdrop of global biodiversity decline and how these losses have the potential to effect ecosystem services and therefore human wellbeing when making decisions. 

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While the international community prepares for the next session of negotiations at the International Seabed Authority (ISA), Holly Niner is leading the preparation of an inter-disciplinary paper on civic oversight over marine ecosystem services in various international ocean for a, including the ISA. 

In July 2024, the Working Group of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention will hold a thematic session on the promotion of the principles of the Convention in international forums that will include a focus on the International Seabed Authority (see tab “thematic session on PPIF”), in the context of Article 3(7) of the Aarhus Convention, which reads: “Each Party shall promote the application of the principles of this Convention in international environmental decision-making processes and within the framework of international organisations in matters relating to the environment.” In this connection, a video-message by Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur for Environmental Human Rights Defenders under the Aarhus Convention, was released last week. 

Related SDGs:

  • Good health and well-being
  • Reduced inequality
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Climate action
  • Life below water