The UN and Our Oceans

As I discussed in my previous blog post, Sustainable Development is ‘where we want to be’, and one organisation working to achieve just that is the United Nations! Thanks to Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary from the IOC of UNESCO and Assistant Director General UNESCO, from his input.

VR: The UN provided the platform for its Member States to develop and 2030 Agenda but indeed the Sustainable Development is where the countries want to be in 2030. So, in essence this is an agenda for them in which the UN provides a platform for discussions, cooperation and coordination. Also agreed were the Goals and their targets, but it is up to people to find the path from where we are now to ‘where we want to be’.


EW: The 14th United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (Life Below Water) is to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. The implementation and use of international law and the Sustainable Development Goals is one massive step towards providing the oceans, and the wider environmental, economic and social spheres, with a much more positive outlook for 2030 and beyond.

VR: Yes, you are right, E Wen, if we implement the targets of the SDG14, ocean will be “better off”. However, please note that the slogan “Life below Water” does not make sense. We speak about life in the ocean and not about life on the ocean floor only (i.e. below water). What was meant here was “below water surface”. When it comes to SDG 14, under law we mean the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).


EW: An exciting recent advancement in this field was the week-long UN Ocean Conference. The inaugural conference took place in 2017 and resolved with the adoption of a 14-point Call for Action affirming a global commitment to reverse the decline of the ocean’s health and protect marine life. Such a resolution was accompanied by 1,300 civil society representatives, academics, artists and financial institutions pledging their support of ocean protection and the goals laid out in SDG 14.

VR: Yes, I was there, too, and can confirm that the enthusiasm was outstanding. The Conference requested voluntary commitments from various circles and approximately 1400 of them were registered on the Conference website. Now the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) formed 9 communities of action and we monitor progress on the commitments. Also, UN negotiates ow an extension of UNCLOS toward protecting and facilitating sustainable use of ocean biodiversity in areas beyond natural jurisdiction (BBNJ). If agreed, this will be a major step in helping the ocean and life in it to survive.


EW: While this conference was centralised around SDG 14, it also has an important part to play alongside all 17 SDGs and sustainable development as a whole, as raised by President of the UN General Assembly, Peter Thomson. Specifically, the conference discussed the likes of plastic pollution and ocean soup to ocean acidification and illegal fishing, which Thomson highlighted ties in many other SDGs including Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-being, No Poverty and Climate Action. Further, various other points of recognition acknowledge the importance the oceans play towards greater sustainable development including Chapter 17 of Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation.

VR: Peter Thomson is now UN Secretary General Envoy on the Ocean and he continues his heroic quest towards ocean protection. Indeed, ocean is central for other SGGs, and is key for eradicating extreme poverty, ensuring food, water, energy, health, economic development. Ocean regulates climate. Education about the ocean is key and should be a part of quality education. Ocean helps to establish partnerships, too. And, indeed, the Chapter 17 of Agenda 21 and Johannesburg Plan of Action were seminal steps toward recognizing the role of ocean for this planet and its civilization. This recognition took form of SDG 14.

The bar has been raised on global consciousness and awareness of the problem in the oceans


EW: But the UN’s scope of work with the oceans doesn’t end with the SDGs. Upon the realisation that national jurisdictions lacked the effectiveness desired by many nations around the world, a global mechanism was called upon by the UN. The 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment and the adoption of the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) ocean usage and sovereignty were two pinnacle moments for both the ocean and international law, with the establishment of freedom-of-navigation rights, territorial sea boundaries, exclusive economic zones and the creation of procedures and authorities such as the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf and the International Seabed Authority.

VR: The new development of the regime for BBNJ is critically important. While Commission on limits and ISA are focusing on exploration and exploitation,  BBNJ is about protection. Marine Protected Areas may go long way in helping ocean life to survive.


EW: The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) also has significant programmes which look out for our oceans, including The Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities, a one-of-a-kind intergovernmental programme addressing the issues and links between terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems. In addition, UNEP’s Regional Seas Programme supports environmentally conscious use of marine resources, with its Conventions and Action Plans serving as the single legal framework for regional ocean protection.

VR: All correct. The approach here is to find ways of scientifically managing ocean ecosystems, and this work should also involve fisheries (Food and Agricultural Organization), climate issues (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) and Convention on Biological Diversity. This work is supported by United Nations Development Programme and many others. The UN-Oceans includes 23 members – agencies of UN with mandate in various ocean matters.


EW: Last of all, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) plays its part through the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission which handles the management and coordination of programmes in marine research, observation systems and hazard mitigation in oceans and coastal areas.

VR: Yes, last but not least, because IOC of UNESCO coordinates the development of ocean observations, research, and services. It helps ALL to develop the capacity to conduct ocean observations, research, and work in the ocean and be able to benefit from it. The role of science is critical for the ocean because many ocean things are not understood and are far from easy access. IOC also coordinates tsunami warning and by that protects lives of people.


EW: Put this all together, and you have an extremely impressive representation of the UN’s contribution towards ocean conservation and protection. The United Nations continues to lead and stand at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the seas and oceans are protected peacefully and diplomatically, for the interests of individuals and societies all over the world. In the future, I’m interested to see the outcomes achieved towards decreasing anthropogenic pollution and, in a broader sense, the success of global sustainable development in the long-run!

VR: The role of UN is most critical indeed, but so is the role of young people/students like you. You are excited about right things and you are able to formulate them in a very clear and correct way. We need people like you to live in honesty and dignity, and this is what will help all of us to achieve the goals of sustainable development. To know what is going on, to understand the processes, to strive for the better, be honest and generous and do not allow bad things to happen, protect people and the Earth – and to leave no one behind – this is the path to sustainability. Why is this about young? Because sustainable development is the way of living in health and dignity, which, at the same time, does not deprive future generation to do the same. This is why this is about current young and future young people. Thank you E Wen for the great effort.


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