Human persons and the marine environment: Reflections on the role of international human rights law

Laura Major and Elaine Webster

In this post, we introduce some of the questions and academic debates that we are reflecting on as part of a series of One Ocean Hub papers presented at the 5th Annual Law and Development Research Network Conference and as part of our work towards a journal article which asks, how does international human rights law see human persons in relation to the marine environment and what might this mean for future governance?

The marine environment

We could talk about the ocean, ocean health, or the marine environment without talking about the human species. After all, beginning a conversation from the human needs perspective is part of the reason marine sustainability challenges have become so urgent. Efforts to redress this imbalance in discourse around human beings and the marine environment, such as movements towards the rights of nature, recently extended to ocean rights, urge us to consider reframing or re-centering conversation around more-than-human subjects.

However this imbalance will be redressed – which it must be – human beings will undeniably be critical to the responses that are required. And human wellbeing is, and will continue to be, a driving force behind international governance efforts, as reflected in the aims of the Sustainable Development Goals: ‘People’ balanced alongside ‘Planet’, with ‘no one left behind’, and realisation of the ‘human rights of all’. The Goals are grounded in respect for international law, including international human rights law, which is at the fore of the commitments on which Agenda 2030 is based.

Decisions taken internationally on the ocean, in pursuit of Goal 14 on sustainable ocean use in particular, should thus take account of the ocean’s significances for people, and for diverse groups of people — from ocean-dependent small-scale fishing communities to all children everywhere. The vision of the One Ocean Hub is integrated and inclusive decision-making for sustainable ocean use. A key aspect of realising this vision is raising awareness of the interdependencies between ocean governance and international human rights law.

The defining feature of international human rights law, by which we mean the rights, the duties, as well as the discourse more broadly, is that it centres individuals and groups; the members of the human species and community. It provides a discourse, reference point, and framework that aims to empower people vis-a-vis powerful actors.

In order to understand the full potential of international human rights law to support the realisation of ocean-connected human rights and sustainable ocean governance, we suggest that it is valuable to unpack narratives around international human rights law, human persons, and the marine environment.

Based on our shared interest in socio-legal approaches, we reflect on the topic through the lens of scholarship on the anthropology of the body and human rights, and legal scholarship on foundations and interpretations of international human rights law. 

Persons in relation to the marine environment

In our paper in preparation, we explore:

  • scholarship that conceptualises personhood as a composite of corporeality and subjectivity and what this means for how the world is known and experienced;
  • scholarship that looks at how international human rights law constructs the ‘person’, including through recourse to the foundational principle of respect for ‘human dignity’; and
  • scholarship that says something about how rights-bearing personhood is expressed or enacted, including through the body.

To unpack what we mean by persons in relation to the marine environment, we begin to map out relevant academic debates and disciplinary/interdisciplinary perspectives on human relationships with the oceans. We highlight a gap in legal literature connecting international human rights law, persons, and the marine environment. Legal international human rights scholarship, with some exceptions, notably relating to research on climate change impacts on coastal communities and fisheries, has tended to focus on the terrestrial environment.

Scholarship in anthropology has more recently returned to the marine environment and debates the constitution and construction of this environment, as well as the relationship between persons and this seascape. In these analyses, interpretation of a seascape becomes associated with the persons who emerge from it; to some extent scholarship has framed this as an issue of personhood – what it is and how it is constituted in relation to the ocean. For example, persons moving across ocean space often become difficult to control, or difficult to know and understand, as compared to people in terrestrial space. In dominant global governance frameworks and narratives, persons at sea may be difficult to locate, often seen to be threatened and threatening, and therefore indistinct.  

How does international human rights law see persons in relation to the marine environment?

We observe in our paper that international human rights law, as a discourse and framework, says something important about persons and personhood, and that it makes a unique contribution in this respect from the perspective of international governance. This is compared to, notably, the law of the sea regime; the branch of international public law that is most prominently associated with attempts to regulate ocean space. The law of the sea is directed at states, not people, and when it does say something indirectly, human persons are implicitly seen as passive subjects of assistance in liaisons between vessels and state actors. It is significant that international human rights law sees persons as rights-bearing subjects, not only as passive objects of assistance and rescue.

This conceptualisation has been extended to the marine environment through the mechanism of territorial jurisdiction, including on the high seas, and sometimes obligations have been expanded even in situations concerning state failures rather than action. The conceptual resolve of international human rights law to see – to recognise – persons is strikingly apparent in the case of persons perceived by states to be ‘undesirable’, including migrants, and also those who are disappeared at sea. Despite implementation failures when states evade human rights law obligations, the fact that conceptual recognition remains in such liminal jurisdictional spaces says something significant about how international human rights law sees personhood in relation to the marine environment.

If our baseline is that international human rights law has this unique capacity to see persons in the marine environment, what else could this offer? What would it mean for international human rights law to come to ‘sea’ persons even more fully in relation to the marine environment, whether living in lesser or greater proximity to the ocean? What would it mean if, for example, inspired by some of the research and arts-based projects within the One Ocean Hub, we saw entanglement with the ocean as assumed, even integral to the proper constitution of persons, and social systems?

In our paper then, we will reflect on whether international human rights law has potential to extend in such directions, to support the realisation of ocean-connected human rights and sustainable ocean governance. We would welcome comments from, and dialogue with, other researchers on these questions. Unpacking the scope and limits of these issues could help us to realise further opportunities to support just, inclusive and sustainable ocean governance.