On March 31 and April 1, 2016, The Hague Institute for Global Justice organized a two-day conference on Global Oceans Governance. The conference featured four thematic panels addressing issues of maritime ecology in the age of climate change, the maritime dimension of sustainable development under the UN’s 2030 Agenda, threats to maritime security in the form of pirates and other criminal activity, and holistic approaches to maritime security and governance.
Oceans governance is the second focus area of the Global Governance Reform Initiative (GGRI), a multi-year project at The Hague Institute in collaboration with the Observer Research Foundation from India and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The GGRI lens on Oceans receives support from Leiden University College The Hague, and follows the project’s first focus area on cyber governance. During these panel sessions, representing different sectors and countries presented and debated research, insights, and policy recommendations. The dialogue sought to generate evidence-based, multi-stakeholder solutions to pressing governance challenges in select domains.
The conference included a high-level policy roundtable which brought together international experts with senior Dutch policymakers from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Economic Affairs, Infrastructure and the Environment, and Defense. The conference also included a public panel discussion entitled From “Mare Liberum” to “Mare Justum”? featuring experts from each of the conference’s thematic panels, moderated by Dr. Samir Saran, Vice-President and Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, and Dr. Joris Larik, Senior Researcher at The Hague Institute.
As the deliberations throughout the conference demonstrated, the challenges in the area of oceans governance are a domain of superlatives. For instance, as was highlighted during the panel on The Maritime Ecology, approximately 260 million tons of plastic produced yearly end up in the oceans. Plastics and other debris in the world’s oceans represent one of the many pressing issues requiring immediate action. Furthermore, participants discussed the need for greater cooperation in the Indian Ocean as well as the importance of fostering a culture of awareness and sustainability into oceans governance.
At the panel on The Blue Economy and Sustainable Development, one expert demonstrated how China has emerged as a global maritime fishing power of staggering proportions, with more than 700.000 vessels in its fishing fleet and a fishing population that is larger than the entire Dutch population. More generally, discussants emphasized the crucial importance of involving all relevant stakeholders, including government, the business community, and NGOs in order to prevent conflict in a wide range of areas, including fisheries, which carry the danger of spilling over into military standoffs and confrontations.
As a sign of progress, during the panel on Maritime Security – Fighting 21st Century Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea it was observed that due to the efforts of a global coalition, the world has moved well beyond the peak of Somali piracy in 2011. However, militarization and tensions continue to increase in many areas, most notably in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Therefore, policymakers need to think in terms of “regional” and “global interests”, rather than merely in terms of national security.
Lastly, during the concluding panel on Holistic Approaches to Global Oceans Security and Governance, notes of caution were raised as regards quick fixes and the transferability of best practices. For example, simply because there are governance shortcomings in the Arctic theatre, does not mean that there should be a jump to recommending “copy-pasting” the South Polar governance model to the North. Moreover, just because a country happens to be a small developing island does not mean it cannot be a leader and innovator to be watched.
In sum, the conference revealed the many challenges that oceans governance faces, which require integrated and comprehensive approaches. There is an urgent need to move toward properly defining concepts, policies, and roadmaps seeking practical solutions leading to positive change. The various papers presented at the conference have pointed in this direction in many different respects, ranging from harnessing new technologies, updating existing and creating new international treaties, incentivizing both state and non-state actors to collaborate with one another and implementing changes at a local and personal level.