from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Governing and Protecting the World’s Oceans: Still At Sea in Rio

June 22, 2012

Blog Post

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International Organizations

Oceans and Seas


As the UN Conference on Sustainable Development—more popularly known by its moniker, “Rio+20”—wraps up today in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, initial reports from the summit are bleak. The final outcome document, painstakingly hashed out in down-to-the-wire negotiations, contains few concrete and time-specific commitments. The World Wildlife Federation dubbed the text a “colossal failure,” a sentiment echoed by the European Union, which lamented the document’s “lack of ambition.”

The data paint a similarly grim picture. Greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 50 percent since 1990, contributing to record levels of ocean acidification. Eighty percent of fish stocks are depleted or on the verge of extinction. And global oceans reached their highest recorded temperature in 2009.

Although Rio+20 may have fallen short of expectations, the summit did renew international attention on the need for sustainable policies that can advance economic growth while arresting and ideally reversing damage to the world’s environment. In particular, the fate of the world’s oceans—or the “blue economy”—was one of the seven major themes of the summit, which highlighted the growing threats of marine pollution, loss of biodiversity, and resource scarcity.

Overall, the global regime for oceans governance remains fragmented and faces daunting challenges. To assess the strengths, shortcomings, and opportunities of national, regional, and global oceans policies, IIGG relaunched the Global Governance Monitor: Oceans. The entire package has been updated to reflect long-term trends, recent developments, and emerging flashpoint issues, from the melting Arctic to piracy to rapidly declining fish stocks, to the need to safeguard freedom of the seas. The update yields several important findings.

  • By failing to ratify UNCLOS, the United States is falling behind on global oceans leadership. The United States remains the world’s leading naval power; with nearly three hundred naval ships and four thousand aircraft, its fleet exceeds that of the next thirteen largest navies combined. However, despite widespread bipartisan support among political, military, business, and environmental leaders, the United States has failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which provides an overarching framework for the rights, responsibilities, and jurisdictions of states on the high seas. By failing to ratify the convention, the United States forfeits a seat at decision-making forums critical to its economic growth and core national security interests. In a recent Senate testimony, Secretary of State Clinton argued, “Whatever arguments may have existed for delaying U.S. accession no longer exist and truly cannot even be taken with a straight face.”
  • Lack of coordination among domestic oceans policies impedes global progress. Overall, the oceans governance regime is horizontally fragmented and fails to harmonize national, regional, and international policies. And even among the handful of countries and regional bodies that have comprehensive oceans policies—including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the United States, and the European Union—there is limited communication and synchronization of approaches. At the same time, many coastal states in the developing world struggle to craft and implement oceans policies that address diverse oceans challenges—from maritime security to illegal fishing—even as donor funding to help fill these gaps remains sparse and unlikely to grow given the grim global financial outlook.
  • Sustained enforcement yields results. Recent success in combating piracy off the coast of Somalia demonstrates that coordinated enforcement action is capable of delivering concrete results, particularly when it involves cooperation with the private sector (in this case, major shipping companies). After the number of attacks reached a record high in 2011, incidences of piracy dropped 28 percent in the first three months of 2012, primarily due to unprecedented international mobilization and enhanced naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden. At the same time, experts caution that criminal networks often adapt to enhanced policing by shifting routes. In order to turn the tide against piracy, sustained international cooperation will be essential. Similar efforts could potentially be replicated to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.
  • UNCLOS is increasingly outdated and will need to be updated to address emerging threats. UNCLOS is thirty years old and, as a result, does not address a number of increasingly important international issues, such as overfishing—a classic case of the tragedy of the commons—widespread maritime pollution, and transnational crimes committed at sea. In addition, its surveillance, capacity-building, and enforcement mechanisms are weak. Individual states are responsible for enforcing the convention, which presents obvious challenges in areas of overlapping or contested sovereignty, or effectively stateless parts of the world. U.S. accession and leadership could be critical to mobilizing international efforts to update and strengthen the convention.