Whose Ocean?

Exploring ocean stewardship through an international assembly

The ocean is crucial to life and climate, but its voice is barely heard in (international) law and policy decisions. While the UN explicitly speaks about “our ocean”, it is completely unclear who the “our” refers to. Does the ocean belong to humanity? To states? Or does the ocean belong to itself? To the organisms (non-human animals, plants, and microbes) that live in it and/or to the materialities that make the ocean (water, rocks, elements)?

During our Incubator Project, we investigated what the question “whose ocean?” means to academics from Utrecht University and abroad. Our survey revealed that answers were split between “the ocean belongs to everyone”, “the ocean belongs to no one”, and “the question is misguided”; and an analysis of these results have recently been submitted to a scientific journal.

In this Signature Project, we will follow up on the “whose ocean?” question, by preparing and holding an assembly to explore how the ocean can be meaningfully represented at international and national fora such as courts of law and in diplomacy. Inspired by the mock court on the representation of the North Sea, organized by the Embassy of the North Sea in de Peace Palace in The Hague, and the Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes developed by Indian lawyer, academic and researcher Radha D'Souza and Dutch artist Jonas Staal, the assembly will propose a communal relationship doctrine for the stewardship of the ocean.

In this assembly, to be held in November 2024 to commemorate the 40-year anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, we will discuss how a voice of such a more-than-human entity as the ocean can be listened to, articulated, and amplified for a context of (international) policy development and protection of the ocean. This builds upon many recent developments around rights of nature (e.g., the Lagoon Mar Menor in Spain) and emerging crisis/stress in ocean ecosystems. It further builds on (centuries-old) debates and practices around the ocean as ‘blue commons’ (common to all), bringing and reframing these debates and practices in a non-anthropocentric perspective.

The significance of the assembly we propose lies in its attention to the complexity of oceanic relations: ecosystemic relations within the ocean itself, the relation of the ocean and the land, mutual dependance of social and environmental forces related to oceanic pollution and exploitation, and the inherently international context, as more than half of the ocean falls beyond coastal State jurisdiction. For this, we will develop a shared approach informed by the collaboration across natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts.

The outcome of our project will be a charter for how the ocean can be approached in international law and diplomacy, through the lens of both human-related and non-anthropocentric narratives. To translate these more-than-human perspectives into narrative frameworks that can be understood by humans, we will invite and financially support writers, artists, and groups with intimate ties to the ocean to contribute to the assembly, including its preparation. The exact form of this charter will be discussed in the kick-off meeting, where the stakeholders can contribute their expectations and wishes. Examples include white papers, policy briefs, and/or an art installation.

The charter and our other findings will be relevant to (inter)national lawyers, NGOs, and diplomats. The results will be discussed within the “Levende Oceanen”-discussion group that includes key ocean stakeholders from all Dutch ministries. It will also be shared with Dutch academics via the SCOR-NL-group.