How can Africa contribute to improved ocean governance?


Our management of the oceans needs to change, and soon. Failure to do so will have a negative impact on human security and place health, food and environmental security under threat. This is the message currently put forward by the Global Ocean Commission (GOC), whose long-awaited report, From Decline to Recovery: A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean, was published on 24 June to considerable acclaim.

The report was prepared for a renewed discussion on governing the oceans that will take place at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly later this year. What is important for South Africa, and indeed the rest of Africa, is the co-chairing of the GOC by Trevor Manuel, former South African finance minister and former minister in the presidency, who has been a strong and eloquent advocate for improved ocean governance.

The GOC’s findings, although highly technical, contain little that was not already known. More positively, however, the report is raising public awareness and interest, and offers an opportunity for maritime stakeholders to improve the laws and regulations governing the use of the seas and oceans, especially for Africa.

The GOC report must not be allowed to gather dust, as the IWCO report did

The report also notes the challenges to effective ocean governance. These include the rising demand for exhaustible resources such as fossil fuels, technological advances opening previously inaccessible areas for exploitation, and the decline in fish stocks, which threaten the food security of billions of people. Other challenges include climate change, biodiversity and habitat loss creating polluted and acidic oceans, and weak governance regimes focusing on the high seas.

The oceans have always been the great, ungoverned space of the world and it has been accepted as customary that the oceans are a common resource that all can utilise, provided they do so lawfully and operate according to the norms and expectations of a maritime regime. ‘Regime’ refers to the collection of laws and institutions that actors such as states, or shipping companies, agree to comply with. These laws govern aspects such as shipping, resource extraction, pollution and fishing.

The regime envisioned by the GOC would occur through the creation of a UN Sustainable Development Goal for the Oceans, enhanced governance of the high seas to aid its recovery, ending the dumping at sea of plastics and creating regeneration zones. It also proposes scrapping developed countries’ subsidising of idle fleets of fishing vessels – which is significant for Africa. Such subsidies create overcapacity, which means ‘too many boats trying to catch too few fish, all of the time.’ This would help reduce the threat of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing and overfishing, through detecting and closing ports and markets that allow such fishing to occur. Finally, this would be steered and monitored through the creation of a Global Ocean Accountability Board.

Historically it has been difficult for coastal states to reach consensus regarding ocean governance. The resultant regimes, in particular the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), came after decades of revision and negotiation, requiring enormous patience, good will and expenditure simply to produce a body of acceptable laws. Yet not all states have ratified the treaty – notably the USA – and many of its articles are impossible to implement or have major shortcomings. One such shortcoming is the definition of ‘piracy,’ which fails to encompass the range of crimes committed at sea that are associated with piracy.

This commission’s efforts also suffered from narrow-minded national interests

There are also lessons to be learnt from past initiatives for ocean governance such as the 1998 Independent World Commission on the Oceans (IWCO). This commission sought to holistically discuss the state of the oceans and recommended measures to ensure that current and future generations could make safe, secure and sustainable use of the oceans.

This commission’s efforts at producing an international consensus on protecting the oceans also suffered from the indifference born of narrow-minded national interests and unwillingness among states to cooperate. The GOC report must not be allowed to gather dust, as has been the case with the IWCO report.

Developing improved policy is now a major challenge. However, solutions will not be easily found in simply extending sovereignty over the high seas. Such an approach would raise vital questions. For instance, whose sovereignty, and how is this to be enforced over such a wide expanse? Most African states struggle to monitor their territorial waters for criminal activities, and no regional economic community or international organisation, such as the African Union (AU) or UN, could do the job.

At present the GOC has enjoyed a high profile largely thanks to the prominence of its chairs and composition of its members. Championing a commission with notable public figures certainly helps in garnering attention and producing action. While the impact of such groupings – The Elders is an example – might seem negligible, they do bring great awareness to the issues highlighted. Here too there is an important lesson for the AU in implementing its African Integrated Maritime Strategy (AIMS 2050) and Africa’s contribution to promoting ocean governance.

Article 104 of the strategy proposes that the AU establish a High-Level College of Champions (HLC2) – a GOC-like lobby group of prominent and respected African statesmen and women – who can play an important role in the implementation of the strategy.

While this may work for the GOC, the HLC2 remains an aspiration for the AU. It is a tenuous one at best since it is unclear who will agree to take up this challenge and how they will popularise its work. This should be receiving more attention and engaging with the GOC is an important way of garnering insights. A sustained, well-funded and self-aware body such as the GOC offers a number of lessons, and the best hope for a regime that can offer not just human, but also global ocean security.

Timothy Walker, Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria

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