What have we achieved during IYAFA-2022? And what next for advancing the human rights-based approach to small-scale fisheries?

By Elisa Morgera

The International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA 2022) provided a significant opportunity to raise awareness and advance understanding of the human rights of small-scale fishers, fish workers and their communities. Throughout IYAFA, we have deepened joined efforts with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), theUN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)and other partners to underscore the opportunities for policy coherence and SDG synergies arising from the coherent protection of SSF’s human rights. At the same time, we have experimented with different ways to amplify the voices of small-scale fishers in local, national and international discussions on human rights, sustainable fisheries, ocean governance and broader sustainable development agendas. This blog post reflects on the achievements of IYAFA-2022 from a human rights perspective, and outlines the work that remains to be done by ocean researchers, as well as fisheries, environmental and human rights experts.

Expanding collaborations on small-scale fishers’ human rights at the international level

IYAFA-2022 has seen unprecedented high-level engagement with the human rights-based approach to the implementation of the SSF Guidelines on Small-scale Fisheries. For instance,

For the first time the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights addressed the World Ocean Day community, as part of an event where the Hub, FAO and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment engaged in a dialogue with small-scale fisher (SSF) leaders from around the world on their needs, challenges and contributions as environmental human rights defenders.

SSFs’ human rights were then discussed widely at the second UN Ocean Conference in June-July 2022, which was marked by record attendance of small-scale fisher representatives and allies compared to the first edition of the conference in 2017. As a result, the 2022 Political Declaration calls for “collaborative processes for decision-making that include … small-scale and artisanal fisheries, recognizing their role in poverty eradication and ending food insecurity.” 

Later in 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights noted the human rights issues arising from exclusionary and unsustainable blue economies for SSFs. The Rapporteur underscored that “low regard for knowledge pluralism” and “historical stereotyping” of small-scale fishers, including Indigenous peoples, has “hindered their potential contribution through a holistic and integrated environmental ethos. And this is in addition, and sometimes the root cause, of lack of or inadequate consultation with small-scale fishers, which results in the loss of marine spaces and resources that are not only critical for their cultural rights, but also their socio-economic, environmental, and civil and political rights.

In December 2022, the Kumming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework – a new global framework to catalyze, enable and galvanize urgent and transformative action at all levels to halt and reverse biodiversity loss – provides both more ambitious global targets for marine biodiversity conservation and restoration, and more explicit approaches and targets on the protection of human rights in that context, underscoring the human rights-based approach, different value systems, gender equality, inter-generational equality, and the respect for Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ human rights. Crucially, Target 22 calls to:

 “Ensure the full, equitable, inclusive, effective and gender-responsive representation and participation in decision-making, and access to justice and information related to biodiversity by indigenous peoples and local communities, respecting their cultures and their rights over lands, territories, resources, and traditional knowledge, as well as by women and girls, children and youth, and persons with disabilities and ensure the full protection of environmental human rights defenders.

which resonates with the Hub’s work with various UN partners on the need to recognise small-scale fishers as ocean defenders.

In early 2023, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment’s report on gender equality and the human right to a healthy environment called for “Urgent, gender-transformative, rights-based climate and environmental action” that is very much relevant in the specific context of fisheries and beyond, wherever threats to the human rights of small-scale fishers may arise. Equally important is the integration of the ocean and fisheries in the forthcoming UN General Comment on Children’s Human Rights and a Healthy Environment: a zero draft was released in November 2022, and following the submission of comments, a final draft if expected in 2023.

Finally, in early March 2023, the new “BBNJ” agreement on marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (which remains to be formally adopted) ushers a new era of public participation and integration of Indigenous and local knowledge in a much more structured multilateral framework for the governance of marine life in the high seas and deep-seabed. The BBNJ agreement refers specifically to the human rights of Indigenous peoples and other local communities, as well as “food security and other socioeconomic objectives, including the protection of cultural values”, which provide entry points for the protection of SSF’s human rights.

Hub’s contributions

Across our legal and inter-disciplinary research, we have underscored the not-fully utilized value of the human rights-based approach as a programmatic tool to ensure we “leave no-one behind”. Better understanding of SSFs’ human rights can help think through the inter-dependencies of socio-economic, cultural and environmental dimensions of the fisheries sector and its importance for food security, human health, livelihoods and culture. We are thus exploring, in various ways, how at the national level, marine spatial planning, environmental impact assessments, strategic environmental assessments, and the creation of marine protected areas (as well as the management of existing marine protected areas that have been established within taking in due account of SSFs’ human rights).

In addition, we are exploring how to engage genuinely with small-scale fisheries and develop capacities to hear and learn from their lived experiences, living memories and their knowledge, including through art-based approaches, to:

  • protect SSFs’ human rights (to understand the multiple threats affecting their basic rights, from within and outside the fisheries sector, from the ocean and from land);
    • to understand multiple threats to ocean health and sustainable fisheries;
    • and to value SSFs’ multiple contributions to broader society – recognizing them as ocean defenders that protect everyone’s human right to a healthy environment (which the UN General Assembly recognised in 2022).

Further, our ongoing inter-disciplinary research on customary laws of small-scale fishers shows that continuing challenges in legal pluralism are hindering progress in the protection of all other human rights of small-scale fishers.

The remaining work ahead

Throughout IYAFA, there has been a significant rapprochement of the fisheries, environmental and human rights communities of practice – we each need to rely on the other’s expertise to contribute to the better protection of SSF’s human rights.

There are several international opportunities where this rapprochement can continue into 2023 and beyond. These opportunities include:

Important inroads have been made in 2022, and we have a clear sense of where capacity building needs to continue to build long-lasting alliances for sustainable fisheries and SSF’s human rights protection as a matter of general public interest, no longer as a sectoral issue.