Exploring the Relationship Between the Ocean, Justice, and Human Rights 

By Nkeiru Scotcher

Hub research continues to advance understanding of the interdependence of human rights and the ocean by revealing the continued connections to the ocean of displaced communities and reflecting on the legacies of marine dispossession. This blog post highlights the One Ocean Hub’s contributions at the “Oceans, Justice and Human Rights” conference which was held as a hybrid event at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa from 3–5 November 2022.  

Linkages between Ocean Rights and Human Rights 

The conference aimed to generate interdisciplinary discussions about the ocean justice and human rights and highlight the diverse range of issues and approaches such as climate change, the human rights of people in coastal communities, environmental justice, renewable energy and challenges faced beyond areas of national jurisdiction.

A wide breadth of speakers from NGOs, educational gaming developers, decision-makers, international organisations, legal practitioners, and community leaders contributed to the event. The conference was organised by Prof Patrick Vrancken, South African Research Chair in the Law of the Sea and Development in Africa (Nelson Mandela University) in collaboration with Warwick University UK, and the South African International Maritime Institute. 

The keynote speech was delivered by David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, who reflected on the first United General Assembly (UNGA) resolution that recognises the human right to a healthy environment. He emphasised that environmental justice through the lens of the ocean is understudied, and key challenges disproportionately affects historically marginalised groups, small-scale fishers, and low-income communities/nations. In making that point, he referred to a paper on ocean justice to which the Hub contributed. In addition, Boyd referred to recent national developments that address ocean justice issues, such as the South African court cases on seismic surveys, which relied upon Hub research with small-scale fisheries and local communities who bear the brunt of marine biodiversity degradation and climate change impacts. 

Our contributions 

Hub Director Elisa Morgera was invited to deliver a presentation on the negotiations for a new international legal binding instrument on marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ process) from an environmental and human rights perspective. The presentation focused on Hub’s ongoing research on the deep sea and the need to co-produce ocean action with indigenous knowledge holders including women and children. The paper represented ongoing research from across the Hub feeding into the ongoing UN negotiations on human rights, including their relevance for capacity building, environmental assessments and participatory governance

As part of a panel examining environmental rights and non-state actors, Hub early-career researcher Tanya Wagenaar (Nelson Mandela University) presented on the obligations of non-state actors to realise a transition to sustainable ocean governance. The presentation firstly examined the application of the South African Constitution on environmental rights in marine areas within and beyond national jurisdiction, considering international rules on sustainable use of marine biodiversity under the Convention on Biological Diversity.  

The presentation also considered linkages with human rights based on the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Climate Change and Human Rights that full enjoyment of human rights is linked to healthy ecosystems. Hub reflections on the Special Rapporteur’s report can be found here. The presentation advocated for a human right-based approach by all actors in the ocean as this an essential component for sustainable ocean governance.  

Hub Advisory Board Chair, Eden Charles (University of the West Indies, Trinidad & Tobago), presented on opportunities and challenges to human rights in small island developing states in areas beyond national jurisdiction. With a special focus on the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the presentation emphasised that ocean action needs to address climate justice and the disproportionate effect of climate change on small island developing states. The Hub has also shown the crucial role of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research in advancing climate change adaptation and resilience with collaborations across deep-sea ecology to social sciences, law, and the arts.  

Hub researcher, Tajudeen Sanni (Nelson Mandela University, South Africa) presented on the right of nature approach in the pursuit of justice and the protection of human rights in the ocean. The presentation emphasised that an often-ignored route to protecting human rights and justice in the ocean is the securing of the right of “the foundation producer” of ecosystem services, namely the ocean. The right of nature approach echoes Hub researchers’ calls for a new relationship between humanity and the ocean and international contributions of the Hub on this debate

Our Ongoing Work  

Hub research has highlighted the link between the ocean, biodiversity and human rights to address environmental justice issuesChildren’s rights to a healthy environment have also been emphasised as an often-ignored element in the push for sustainable ocean action, with the Hub as a partner of the children’s environmental rights initiative.  

In addition to Hub research on the human rights-ocean-climate nexus (see here and here), Hub Director Elisa Morgera and Hub early-career researcher Mitchell Lennan with Professor Kati Kulovesi (University of Eastern Finland), are preparing for a special issue to be published in the International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law in 2023 on the human rights-ocean-climate nexus.  

Meanwhile, the Hub’s partnership with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) throughout 2022 International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture has focused on strengthening the recognition and protection of human rights of small-scale fishers and their communities. The learnings from this year of collaboration will be shared at the closing event of IYAFA at FAO Headquarters in Rome in mid-March 2023. 

Illustration by: Margherita Brunori