Hub research included in UN Special Rapporteur’s report on right to food, fisheries and climate change 

The 2024 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, focused on fisheries and the right to food in the context of climate change (A/HRC/55/49), with a focus on the advancement of the human rights of small-scale fishers and Indigenous Peoples. The report sought to build on the work done in the context of the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture. The report covers several areas on which Hub research and partnerships have been focused on: the human rights-based approach in the implementation of the FAO Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small- Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication (SSF Guidelines); tensions between marine conservation, climate change and the protection of SSF’s human rights; the threats arising from the blue economy; the relevance of the BBNJ Agreement; and the WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies. The report relies on three Hub submissions on several occasions. 

The protection of small-scale fishers’ human rights 

UN Special Rapporteur Fakhri underscores at the outset that, “The full enjoyment of human rights by small-scale fishers”, who are on the front lines of climate change and were severely most impacted by COVID 19, “is a necessary precondition for the realisation of the right to food by everyone”. He then emphasises that “Small-scale fishers have been warning governments about the dangers of overfishing since at least the 1860s. For over a century and half since then, small-scale fishers’ ecological concerns have been ignored”, and they continue to be marginalised from decision-making processes related to large-scale fisheries, marine protected areas, coastal development and offshore oil and gas operations (paras 1-2, 5-6 and 8). 

The Special Rapporteur confirmed that the SSF Guidelines “must be interpreted in the light of international law and relevant human rights instruments such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas”. Accordingly, States’ must “provide Indigenous Peoples with a special and differentiated consultation process” to seek their free prior informed consent. Fakhri also called on States to “promote and support the meaningful, real and informed participation of Indigenous women and girls in political and public life and at all levels, including in decision-making positions” and ensure that statistics disaggregated by gender do not understand gender as strictly binary (paras 18, 23 and 25). 

Fakhri thus called on FAO to “prioritise, and devote more resources towards, protecting and supporting small-scale fishers, fish workers and Indigenous Peoples, including through support for full implementation of the [SSF Guidelines] at all levels of government” (para 100); and recommended that States: 

  • Grant SSFs priority in the allocation of public lands and fisheries;  
  • Restore and redistribute traditional, customary and Indigenous tenure rights of fishing communities where SSFs and Indigenous Peoples have been dispossessed from land and water territories without appropriate consultation and consent;  
  • Create exclusive fishing zones for SSFs and clamp down on incursions by industrial fleets; and 
  • Implement co-management systems for 100% all coastal areas, by putting in place specific legal frameworks that clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the authorities and fishers and by providing the appropriate support for fishers to engage, taking into consideration their legitimate tenure rights and systems. 

Hub evidence on the negative impacts of offshore oil and gas on small-scale fishers 

The Special Rapporteur also called attention to offshore oil and gas exploration and extraction as posing “escalating threats for both the climate and small-scale fishers,” and “directly undermin[ing] a number of human rights and endanger the food security of entire regions (para 42). He listed the following threats arising from offshore oil and gas: 

  • Undersea pipelines can create safety hazards by entangling fishing equipment and vessels, endangering life and property; 
  • Routine discharges from transport vessels contaminate oceans with hydrocarbons, toxic metals and dangerous chemicals; 
  • Noise pollution from drilling and exploration activities interferes with fish communication and migration patterns; 
  • Construction of infrastructure often destroys crucial fish habitats; 
  • unplugged or poorly plugged wells and abandoned infrastructure can continue to leak oil, radioactive materials and other toxins into the ocean; 
  • the installation of offshore infrastructure is often accompanied by the creation of exclusion zones that prevent fishers from accessing fish stocks, leading to loss of livelihoods and food insecurity (paras 43-44). 

Hub evidence submitted by Hub researcher Jackie Sunde and the KwaZulu-Natal Subsistence Fisherfolk Forum (South Africa) was referred in this context: the Rapporteur indicated that “In 2022, fishers in Durban, South Africa experienced devastating floods, with over 400 people killed in a few days. Fishers lost houses and loved ones and were then prohibited from fishing for months afterwards; and that “Although some of the companies responsible have been brought before national courts in host countries, it is still difficult for small-scale fishing organisations to obtain any relief (paras 45 and 56). 

He then referred to the South African cases on seismic surveys (see also here and here) as follows: 

Special Rapporteur Fakhri thus recommended, among other things, that States: 

  • carefully assess and disclose – through impact statements, good faith public consultations and Indigenous free, prior informed consent – the impacts of proposed offshore oil and gas activity on local fisheries and fisherfolk rights; 
  • assess the proposed project’s climate and biodiversity impacts and require the mitigation of such effects before approving or financing any such projects;  
  • conduct periodic independent audits of oil loading operations locally; and 
  • compensate coastal communities for any environmental damage (para 97).  

While the focus on offshore oil and gas is timely and crucial to understand the multiple (land- and ocean-based) threats to small-scale fishers’ human rights, it would have been helpful in the report also to note that exclusionary approaches to the development and funding of offshore renewables and the disregard for negative impacts on biodiversity and cultural rights should also be prevented through genuinely participatory approaches, and the consideration of Indigenous and local knowledge. It is important, as it has been highlighted in the Hub submissions to three international tribunals on State obligations on climate change, to underscore tensions and potential for human rights violations arising from climate change response measures that do not take into account negative impacts on marine biodiversity and ocean-dependent human rights. 

WTO Fisheries Subsidies Agreement  

The Special Rapporteur also relied on the Hub policy brief and academic article on the need to interpret the WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies in accordance with international human rights law, in order to ensure the protection of SSFs’ human rights, as follows: 

These Hub findings and recommendations had been discussed with FAO at the closing of the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture, with a particular focus on the role of FAO to build the capacity to support the human rights-based approach under the SSF Guidelines and the WTO Agreement. Other points discussed in Fakhri’s report on the WTO Agreement are discussed in a separate blog post by Stephanie Switzer here. 


The report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food on fisheries and the right to food in the context of climate change also makes references to other areas of ongoing research under the One Ocean Hub. For instance, the report made several references to the importance of recognising, valuing and protecting Indigenous and other SSFs’ knowledge systems (and the need for fair and equitable benefit-sharing, as recently underscored also by the UN Special Rapporteur on Culture), as well as customary norms, rights and tenure (paras 49 and 78; see Hub resources here and here; as well as ongoing research here). In this connection, Fakhri concluded that “a community’s ability to adapt to climate change is determined by the ability of shared norms, values and understandings to enable cooperation; the degree of community participation in decision-making; and the ability to simultaneously work with traditional, Indigenous and scientific knowledge systems” (para 48). 

The UN Special Rapporteur also recalled the concerns about the Global Biodiversity Framework, cautioning that “reconciling the concepts of nature as a financial market and as Mother Earth is unlikely” and that exclusionary conservation and human rights violations could arise from the 30×30 target, as well as blue economy (see also here) and blue finance initiatives (paras 57 and Section IV). Hub researchers are working on an inter-disciplinary paper focusing on the need to locally ground the implementation of global biodiversity and climate change targets, integrating human rights considerations: this paper is led by Lynne Shannon (University of Cape Town, South Africa). Hub researchers are also developing a comparative paper on the negative impacts of national blue economy initiatives, led by Prof Merle Sowman (University of Cape Town, South Africa), that will look at a variety of shortcomings beyond those identified in Fakhri’s report, which focused on the risks of privatisation (paras 73-78). Earlier Hub research had already unveiled the limited attention to culture and livelihoods, gender equality, climate change, holistic ocean governance, as well as its synergies with international investment law

Finally, the Special Rapporteur also reflected on the importance of respecting small-scale fishers’ human rights in the context of regional and global ocean fora. This is the case of the BBNJ Agreement, noting the risk that area-based management tools on the high seas without respecting the human rights of local coastal communities and “without doing anything to address power imbalances might push more industrial fleets into the exclusive economic zones of developing countries”, thereby risking to threaten local food security (para 59). Fakhri also recommended that regional fisheries management organisations “incorporate human rights-based approaches into their operations, which includes ensuring that SSFs and Indigenous Peoples can meaningfully participate” (para 95). In that connection, Hub researchers are developing an inter-disciplinary paper on civic oversight over the consideration of ecosystem services and human rights in various international (global and regional) ocean fora. The paper is led by Hub early-career researcher Holly Niner (Plymouth University, UK). The Hub is also going to publish a new series of policy briefs on the human rights dimensions of the BBNJ Agreement (building on those prepared for the final phases of the BBNJ negotiations here, here and here).