Sunday 26. September 2021
#206 - July-August 2017

The UN Ocean Conference: an important step for humanity in motion

The first-ever United Nations summit on oceans took place in June. It represents a major turning point in mobilising the international community to act to protect marine life, especially in the high seas.

Immensity, ignorance and delusion

When you look at the sea, you see waves, light effects and colour. You are captivated by the enormousness of the ocean: 70.8% of our planet’s surface is covered by ocean. Yet below this surface there is an extraordinary volume which has an average depth of 3.7 kilometres.


The bio-habitable volume of the ocean is 300 times greater than that of terrestrial habitats.

Knowledge of the ocean still remains incomplete. We know more about lunar landscape than we do about the ocean bed. We think that 91% of oceanic life remains to be discovered. We have for a long time believed, or have wanted to believe that the effects of human activity would be diluted in the immensity of the marine environment.


Waking up

Collective awakening is slow. Gradually, as catastrophies follow one after another, humanity is becoming aware of the effects of its unconsciousness. It was only after the apparent eradication of whales in the North Atlantic that the international community brought into force the International Whaling Commission in 1948.


The story is repeated in terms of oil slicks and so many other forms of overexploitation. With a great deal of hindsight, humanity is slowly learning to behave in an adult-fashion in relation to the ocean: it is a slow and tedious process along which humanity does not advance in a straight line.


The Encyclical Laudato Si’ asks the question ‘Who has transformed the marvellous marine world into an under-water cemetery deprived of life and colour?’ (LS, §41). It’s time to read the Encyclical again.


On the epistemological level, we have since 1950 been witnessing the emergence and the construction of oceanographic science in all its multidisciplinary complexity. On the economic level, the utmost exploitation, masterfully filmed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand (Ocean Planet, 2012) is no longer the model to follow. Alternative paths are emerging. Protected marine areas could form 10% of the ocean in 2020 (in 1993 it was a mere 0.3%), the vast majority of them located in waters falling under national jurisdictions. On the regulatory level, the United Nations took 30 years to negotiate the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) signed at Montego Bay in 1982, and diplomats aim to supplement measures in the area in which regulation is most lacking, namely the management of the high seas. In terms of living together, access to and sharing resources from the sea crystallises deep tension among individual interests; tackling these tensions and seeking the common good constitutes an immense challenge.


On the ontological level, more and more voices are calling for another relationship to the ocean. We are all members and stewards of creation. The ocean is the source of life on earth. Our responsibility for the ocean stems from our human condition.



The very first United Nations Ocean Conference took place in New York between 5 and 9 June 2017. Opinions converge in seeing this summit as a major turning point in the mobilisation of the international community. The Conference delivered 1328 commitments, 603 from governments, 375 from civil society actors, 166 from actors linked to the United Nations System, 73 from the private sector, and 63 from scientific actors and 46 from partnerships. The next conference of this type is due to take place in Portugal or in Kenya in 2020.


Does it amount to a scattering of measures? Yes and no. Oceanic habitats are undergoing additional stresses: water acidification, global warming, de-oxygenation, plastic and chemical pollution, proliferation of exogenous bacteria by ballast water from large vessels, over-fishing, degradation of specific environments, etc. Whilst some of these stress factors are difficult to reverse, scientists are noticing that the resilience of ecosystems increases if exposure to stress factors decreases. Therefore, a coral reef has a greater chance of adapting to global warming if its exposure to other sources of stress is limited as much as possible or if the area benefits from a high level of protection. We therefore need to act on all fronts, particularly better protecting marine areas which are of special importance for biodiversity. However, this multiplicity of measures does not erase the need for coordination, dialogue and justice.


Following on from this summit, it will be necessary to work towards an international agreement on the management of the high seas. The UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (1982) is out-dated and the high seas, areas beyond national jurisdictions are in fact areas with no rule of law. Let us wager that the dialogue of the 8000 people present in New York will keep the pressure on the diplomatic process in progress.

Frédéric Rottier

Centre Avec


Translated from the original text in French


The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.