learning pathway on: Access to ocean data – equity and human rights dimensions

By Elisa Morgera (as part of the Hub’s collaboration with UNITAR on the One Ocean Learn platform)

“We know more about outer space than we do about the ocean” – is a common, and very true, refrain. Access to ocean data is essential for understanding how healthy is the ocean, how effective our efforts are to protect it and use sustainably its resources, and how many benefits humanity and the planet derive from the ocean, including in relation to climate change. But the gathering of ocean data is complex, very costly and still lagging behind our needs. Only very few countries in the world can afford the risks and costs of deep-sea science endeavors, which means that they effectively control who has access to that source of knowledge and the resulting data. But all countries and their ocean-dependent communities need to benefit from ocean data, including for their climate change response measures. Being excluded from ocean science efforts also means that the specific research needs of the majority of countries are often neglected, and their capacities to carry out ocean research do not develop. This is particularly true in the Caribbean, Africa and Oceania. Meanwhile, access to ocean data can support more technologically advanced countries, where pharmaceutical and biotech companies can develop new products based on the incredible natural properties of marine living organisms (which are called “the ocean genome”).

While there are efforts ongoing to ensure more equitable access to marine science, from data gathering to sharing data, building capacities, sharing technologies and creating collaborations for bio-based innovation between the Global North and the Global South (based on existing rules in the law of the sea, and ongoing negotiations at the UN), significant barriers still remain. As a result, countries in the Global South are less able to participate in international decisions on the creation of marine protected areas, fishing quotas and others use of marine spaces and resources. They are also less informed to take decisions and create new laws about the marine areas closer to their shores. The role of ocean data is also crucial to support the assessments of cumulative and transboundary impacts on the marine environment.

Fundamentally, being able to influence the evidence base upon which decisions on the ocean are made is a significant power that rests on the ability to produce the best available science, particularly in consideration of competing uses that may benefit and disadvantage different sectors and groups. These benefits and disadvantages may matter from a human rights perspective. So access to ocean data, as well as the related aspects of participation in ocean science and collaboration in the use of ocean data, have important implications for human rights, which have been captured in the human right to science and its contributions to the enjoyment of other human rights such as the rights to food and health, and is therefore significant for the realization of sdg s 2 (hunger) and 3 (health and well-being), as well as people’s capacities for learning, taking equal part in political, social and cultural life and to work, therefore playing a part in the implementation of sdg s 4 (education), 8 (decent work) and 10 (inequality).

So what does the human right to science say? It requires States, among other things, to:

  • ensure access data and research results that are critical to the enjoyment of the right to health and other economic, social and cultural rights;
  • prioritize allocation of public resources to research in areas where there is the greatest need for scientific progress in health, food and other basic needs related to economic, social and cultural rights, and the wellbeing of the population, especially with regard to vulnerable and marginalized groups;
  • cooperate internationally to ensure that the ‘collective benefits of knowledge [are] shared globally’, taking into account ‘deep international disparities among countries in science and technology’.

Against this background, ensuring access to ocean data is not just a technical issue. There are global disparities in the production and use of ocean data that need to be taken into consideration, as well as human rights implications. The flip of the coin is that there are crucial opportunities for access to ocean data to contribute to the realization of inter-connected sdgs, as summarized by sdg target 14a

‘Increase scientific knowledge, develop research capacity and transfer marine technology … in order to improve ocean health and to enhance the contribution of marine biodiversity to the development of developing countries’

So it is essential to understand and make progress on ocean data sharing in the context of a broader effort to ensure ocean knowledge co-production, taking equity and human rights considerations as essential ingredients for transformative change, as well as the need for integrated approaches at the ocean-climate nexus.