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Dominion over the sea

Who decides where raw materials may be exploited in the deep sea, and under what conditions? Political questions like these related to the ocean are Aletta Mondré's research field. She holds the unique chair for international ocean governance.

 

Seamap of the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone
© International Seabed Authority 2018

Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone

The ocean floor holds coveted raw materials. In addition to oil and gas, they also include economically interesting marine gas hydrates and ores (manganese nodules, cobalt crusts and massive sulphides). So far, neither the exact extent of the deposits is known, nor are there any machines or techniques for extracting such natural resources. Nevertheless, a number of countries and companies are already in the starting blocks in order to secure a piece of the pie. At the same time, there is a danger that marine mining may irreparably damage many hundreds of square kilometres of the seabed. In order to regulate projects in deep-sea mining, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established in 1994, in terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The UN agency with headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica, manages the natural resources of the seabed under international waters, awards license areas to interested states, ensures that the environment is protected, and also that developing countries share the benefits.

Professor Aletta Mondré, who heads the field of international ocean governance at Kiel University, took part in the ISA's council meeting in Jamaica in March. »As a political scientist I find it interesting that we have an international organisation which sets rules, although it is currently not possible to exploit the resources of the ocean floor in the deep sea.« 37 states are represented on the council of the UN authority. These are determined by a complex electoral system, in order to ensure that both industrialised and developing countries as well as all geographical regions are represented. In addition to the members, so-called observers are also present at the annual meeting of the authority. These include other states, international organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Alettea Mondré
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Alettea Mondré

Mondré participated as a delegate of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, which has been accredited as an observer since 2017. The Cluster of Excellence »The Future Ocean« has a long-standing cooperation with the »Ocean Governance« project of the IASS, which analyses the regulatory framework for possible deep-sea mining activities, and develops independent contributions as well as impetus for the international negotiating process in dialogue with stakeholders from science, politics and civil society. »I was there with observer status. This means precisely that. You sit in the last row, may participate in the official part of the negotiations, and also have a right to speak.«

A topic at this year's meeting was distribution issues arising from the »Common Heritage of Mankind« principle. The deep-sea ocean floor is covered by this principle of international law. In other words, no state, individual or company has exclusive claims. »If a state is technologically capable of deep-sea mining, carries this out and makes a profit, it must share this with others. At this year’s meeting, economic models for this purpose were presented and discussed. For example, it was about the extent to which all states will share the profits,« explained the scientist. The question is, who ultimately makes the decision. »If we carry out pension reform at the national level, for example, this is a political decision. As a society, we can only hope that as much expertise as possible is included in the process. But also at the international level, ultimately someone must take responsibility for the decision.«

Fundamentally, the political scientist is interested in the process which leads to the decisions, guidelines and regulations. She examines the questions: Who is involved? Who is particularly influential, and which criteria determine this? It is also uncertain whether the negotiated rules will be effective. »If binding rules are developed in a good democratic process, we would of course want them to also work particularly well and effectively. But that is an open research question.« This also applies to political regulations regarding the exploitation of offshore oil and gas fields, which are the research focus of Mondré’s colleague, Dr Annegret Kuhn.

Since March 2017, Mondré’s working group has strengthened the Kiel Marine Science (KMS) priority research area at Kiel University. The scientist came to the field of marine policy via the big questions of war and peace. Border conflicts are typical, if states cannot agree where the sea borders lie between them. For several decades, there has been a significant global increase in political sovereignty claims over sea areas, and the exploitation of marine resources in ever-deeper regions of the ocean. »This leads to new complex challenges and potential for conflicts, and thus demonstrates the increased relevance of international governance of the seas, which is at the centre of our research and teaching.« According to Mondré, Kiel University is unique in having its own chair for international ocean governance. »I attend many political science meetings, and have so far not met a direct counterpart.«

Author: Kerstin Nees

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PDF #95 (German) 

 

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