Where next, to advance the protection of human rights of small-scale fishers? 


Following on our collaboration with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2022-2023 to clarify the content of the human rights of small-scale fishers and ensure their coherent protection through the implementation of the FAO Small-scale Fisheries (SSF) Guidelines (see 2022 joint policy brief), the Hub met with various partners in November 2023 to take stock of progress and identify new areas of focus in preparation for the 2024 SSF Summit (5-7 July 2024, Rome). In addition, the Hub contributed to the call for evidence of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for his next report on fisheries, which will be released in March 2024. 

14 November 2023, Rome, Italy – Creating an enabling environment for securing sustainable small-scale fisheries, project meeting with partners (Hotel Ripa) Photo: FAO/Cristiano Minichiello

Danish Institute’s Expert Meeting on Human Rights, Fisheries and Aquaculture  

Hub Director Elisa Morgera was invited by the Danish Institute for Human Rights to contribute to an expert meeting on “Human Rights and the Sustainable Use and Management of Marine Resources” (2-3 November 2023 Copenhagen, Denmark). The meeting aimed to explore the key human rights issues currently affecting small-scale fishers, fish workers and fishing-dependent communities; share emerging good practices to address these issues and explore new areas for future attention; and learn of new methodologies and approaches for securing the integration of human rights within relevant policy and legal frameworks and in industry practices.  

Elisa Morgera was part of a panel with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, colleagues from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Chair of the UN Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee. She provided insights in particular on “New Frontiers in Environmental Law, its interplay with Human Rights Law, and its Particular Relevance for Coastal Communities.” In her remarks, Elisa underscored the role of the human right to a healthy environment, including children’s human right to a healthy environment, to: 

Together with Indigenous peoples’ representatives from different regions, partners such as WWF, and other experts, the panellists developed various ideas for a new programme of research that will be brought together by the Danish Institute as a platform for further and deeper collaborations moving forward, including with a view to enhancing exchanges with the UN human rights bodies and national human rights institutions to support the protection of small-scale fishers’ human rights.  

FAO workshop on Creating an Enabling Environment for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries  

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation invited Elisa Morgera to a workshop that brought together regional and global partners, as well as from various countries, and small-scale fisheries organizations, for experience sharing and learning on the work conducted to support the implementation of the SSF Guidelines worldwide, as well as exploring potential areas of future work and collaboration and further enhancing awareness and knowledge of the SSF Guidelines. The workshop was held on 14–16 November 2023, Rome. 

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The workshop provided an opportunity to learn about a new Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning approach for the implementation of the SSF Guidelines, and discuss the need for gender-transformative approaches. Elisa also underscored the need for the SSF Guidelines implementation to recognize the role of small-scale fishers as ocean defenders that benefit everyone’s human right to a healthy environment, as well as the relevance of the UN General Comment 26 on children’s right to a healthy environment. Elisa also participated in the legal and policy break-out group, where discussions focused on: 

  • the legally binding nature of the international human rights and environmental treaties that underpin the SSF Guidelines,  
  • the need to advance the integration of the ecosystem approach and the human rights-based approach in the implementation of the SSF Guidelines;  
  • the need to build further trust between small-scale fishers and the marine conservation sector; 
  • and the opportunities for the implementation of the SSF Guidelines to bring about transformative change in the face of climate change. 

The exchanges at the workshop provided various insights that can feed into the preparations of the 2024 SSF Summit. In particular, it was great to see that the One Ocean Hub’s feedback shared in March 2023 on the importance of an explicit discussion of human rights at the SSF Summit have been taken on board and that there is an interest in exploring new methodologies for holding the Summit. 

Submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food 

The Hub contributed to three submissions to the call by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food to give inputs on his upcoming report on fisheries. The KwaZulu-Natal Subsistence Fisherfolk Forum provided evidence on limitations in public participation in decision-making in South Africa, including on oil and gas development, as well as ocean master plan and marine protected areas. In addition, the evidence called attention to the lack of recognition of small-scale fishers’ tenure. Jackie Sunde, University of Cape Town, also provided evidence on the lack of recognition of small-scale fishers’ human rights in South Africa in the context of the expansion of marine transport, ports and energy infrastructure. The submission also noted the need to recognize women’s contributions to the value chain in the traditional line fish sector, as it provides multiple sources of food to different groups in a community but is not factored into fisheries policy making and rights allocation. 

A submission by Elisa Morgera shared comparative insights from research in Ghana, South Africa and Namibia and in the Caribbean, about the misrecognition and disrespect of the cultural rights of small-scale fishers (their spiritual and cultural connections to marine spaces, their distinctive knowledge systems, and their customary laws) – within and outside the fisheries sector – as one of the root causes of the violations of their right to food, as well as their participation in relevant policy processes.  

In addition, the submission pointed to the lack of strategic environmental assessments for various policy areas that negatively affect fisheries and marine biodiversity (such as mining, infrastructure development, tourism), as well as the lack of national legal requirements for environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for large-scale fisheries as they contributes to a generalized lack of consideration of small-scale fishers’ right to food, and other social and cultural rights, by public authorities. It also underscored the role of small-scale fishers as “ocean defenders” (see also here and here) and their underlying contribution to the protection of everyone’s human right to a healthy environment should be acknowledged. 

Further, the Hub expressed concern about the implementation of the recent WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, which may further undermine the protection of small-scale fishers’ right to food, due to lack of understanding of the human rights implications of removing harmful fisheries subsidies, particularly when the small-scale and large-scale fisheries sectors overlap in complex ways. On the other hand, there is an opportunity to recommend that States re-invest financial resources mobilized by the removal of subsidies into the implementation of the SSF Guidelines and the realization of small-scale fishers’ human rights. 

Finally, the Hub submission singled out as good practices that have strengthened the recognition, protection and remedies for small-scale fishers the co-development of partnership approaches between small-scale fishers, academic researchers and NGOs to strengthen the protection of small-scale fishers’ human rights: 

  • art-based research approaches to document violations of small-scale fishers’ rights and their cultural connections to the ocean, to inform public debate and decision-making (see empatheatre in South Africa; documentary on fishers’ songs in Ghana; documentary with displaced Indigenous peoples in Namibia). Some of the resulting art works have been successfully used as evidence in litigation in South Africa; 
  • Networks of small-scale fisher leaders, environmental justice organizations and academics responding collaboratively and strategically to a range of threats and violations of small-scale fishers’ human rights, and to support ocean defenders, such as the Coastal Justice Network in South Africa; 
  • Pop-up clinics to provide women in small-scale fishing communities legal advice, and direct academic research and action towards their legal needs. 

Photo: FAO/Cristiano Minichiello.

Related SDGs:

  • No poverty
  • Zero hunger
  • Good health and well-being
  • Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  • Reduced inequality
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Responsible consumption and production
  • Climate action
  • Life below water