Author: Alvin K. Leong (Environmental lawyer, Policy advisor and researcher)
The Ocean Conference (United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14) was held from June 5-9, 2017 in New York. The Ocean Conference saw over 1,300 voluntary commitments made (as of the closing plenary) for ocean-related initiatives by governments and a wide variety of other stakeholders, and the adoption of a concise and focused political declaration — a “Call for Action” on the global ocean, a term which encapsulates all oceans, seas and marine resources.
The Call for Action is not only striking for its plain language conciseness, it represents a new paradigm in the “post-2015 world” as it is inextricably linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
While the declaration focuses specifically on the implementation of SDG 14, it expressly recognizes the inter-linkages and synergies among all the SDGs and affirms their integrated and indivisible character.
The tenor of the Ocean Conference and the Call for Action provided significant positive momentum for the operationalization of SDG 14, including:
- Ocean-related awareness and education (¶13(d) &(e))
- Knowledge hubs and networks to share data, best practices and know-how (¶10)
- Scientific research, including ocean and coastal observation, and the collection and sharing of data and knowledge, including traditional knowledge (¶13(f))
- Decision-making based on the best available science (¶13(f) & (j))
- Reduction of marine pollution, including through the use of the 3Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle, and reduction of the use of plastics and micro-plastics (¶13(g)-(i))
- Area-based management tools such as marine protected areas (MPAs) and other approaches (¶13(j))
- Adaptation and mitigation measures to support resilience to climate change impacts (¶13(k))
- Sustainable fisheries management, ending destructive fishing practices and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and assisting small-scale and artisanal fishers (¶13(l)-(o))
- Ocean-based economies as an integrated component of sustainable development (¶13(q))
Significantly, the Call for Action also provides political momentum for (1) the negotiations on ending harmful fisheries subsidies at the World Trade Organization (¶13(p)) and (2) discussions on the development of an international legally binding instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (¶13(s)).
Notably, a document such as the Call for Action can signal the evolution of international environmental “soft law”, i.e., internationally accepted norms and principles that are not legally binding or enforceable. While not commonly thought of as “law”, soft law does have power and value. Soft law can supplement or otherwise inform the implementation of a hard law regime; it can constitute an emerging or intermediate step in the development of hard law; it can reveal the existence of customary law; and, like hard law, it can change behavior if relevant actors accept a particular norm or principle as a guide to action. In this respect, there could, in the future, be strengthened multilateral action on plastic pollution, area-based conservation measures and sustainable fisheries, among other areas.
The Call for Action also emphasizes the concepts of “ecological integrity” and “resilience” (¶5, 13(j) & (k)) and can lend support to the ecological concept of “resilience” as a principle of international environmental law. Recognition of the principle of resilience can help guide the responsibility and action of governments and non-state actors to sustain and enhance the capacity of natural systems to maintain their integrity, in line with the ethical imperatives of living in harmony with Nature and protecting the interests of future generations.
This principle of resilience is embedded within, and yet should be recognized independently of, the precautionary principle and the ecosystem approach, both of which are well accepted in international environmental law.
The Ocean Conference and the Call for Action have set a good foundation to build on for the future, but it is imperative that the positive momentum continues and indeed accelerates. The role of the UN system (¶14) will be important, and future global ocean conferences on a periodic basis can support the progressive achievement of SDG 14. Ultimately, implementation and its means (financing, technology and capacity) will be key. As the world’s governments proclaimed in the Call for Action: “our ocean is critical to our shared future and common humanity” and “we are determined to act decisively and urgently” in protecting and restoring the health and resilience of our blue planet.
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About the author: Alvin K. Leong is an environmental lawyer, policy advisor and researcher in international sustainable development processes. He has degrees from New York University and Pace University.
Together 2030 is a civil society initiative that brings together more than 450 organisations from 89 countries to promote national implementation and track progress of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.