The ocean, sustainable development and human rights

By Elisa Morgera & Patrick Vrancken

“Scaling up ocean action based on science and innovation for the implementation of Goal 14: stocktaking, partnerships and solutions’ was the theme of the second United Nations (UN) Ocean Conference, which took place in Lisbon, Portugal, from 27 June to 1 July 2022. 1 The resulting political declaration contains a commitment to transformative change with a view to ‘halting and reversing the decline in the health of the ocean’s ecosystems and biodiversity and to protecting and restoring its resilience and ecological integrity’. 2 The declaration then underscores, as a way forward, the need to capture ‘policies and actions that may be scalable, through processes such as the Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment, including Socioeconomic Aspects’. 3 However, the declaration does not provide in and of itself the joined-up approaches or clarify the innovative elements of partnerships that can help deliver transformation. 4

Based on ongoing inter- and transdisciplinary research and fair partnerships 5 under the One Ocean Hub, a global collaborative programme of research for development among institutions in the United Kingdom, Africa, the South Pacific and the Caribbean, as well as UN agencies and other international partners, 6 this special issue contributes to answering the question of the nature and scope of transformative change we need to protect the ocean and all the essential benefits that humanity derives from it. The issue does so by focusing on how international human rights law can support transformative interpretations of the law of the sea and international environmental law. 7

There is nothing in the international law of the sea that stands in the way of States, when they exercise their coastal State jurisdictions, flag State jurisdiction or personal jurisdiction, for instance, complying with their international human rights law duties in the exercise of their authority in ocean-related matters. In fact, it appears increasingly difficult to interpret the law of the sea in isolation from the recent international and national law developments on the interdependence of international human rights law and international environmental law, which culminated—but were not exhaustively represented—in the UN General Assembly’s recognition of the international human right to a healthy environment. 8

The One Ocean Hub is pioneering research on human rights and the marine environment with a view to better connecting marine and social sciences, including the arts, to support fair and inclusive decision-making for a healthy ocean allowing both people and planet to flourish. This special issue shares some of our findings, taking stock of some of the persistent and emerging threats to the protection of the marine environment. It explores different international law responses at the regional and global levels, with a view to identifying gaps and shortcomings that represent significant barriers to the sustainable development of the ocean. The special issue takes a distinctive approach by relying on the interdependencies of human rights and the marine environment as a lens for analysis as well as a source of inspiration to suggest potential solutions to some of the key challenges singled out at the 2022 UN Ocean Conference….”