Lima invites the world to discuss managing the commons

The 17th Global Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) from the 1st to the 5th of July at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima brought together academics, practitioners and policy makers from almost 50 countries to discuss challenges, innovation and current research for the commons. Over 500 presenters shared their work from different academic disciplines. The conference highlighted the importance of the protection of the oceans as a global common and the need for dialogue between different knowledge systems. It provided an opportunity to present the research I had worked on proposing a design for a potential Plastics Treaty to eliminate marine plastic pollution.

Commons, or public goods, are defined as goods that are collectively owned by a certain group or entirely shared. This includes services to the population provided by the State, such as roads and public internet, as well as the natural environment with commonly shared land or water resources. Some of these goods are global and therefore have a particular importance. Global commons benefit all – including current and future generations – and their overexploitation in one part of the world has effects on a global level. The protection of global commons is therefore only possible with international cooperation. Examples of global commons are the atmosphere, space and our ocean.

Throughout the week, topics of the conference sessions included local and global commons, theories and history of the commons, gender balance in commons management, conflicts regarding land use between different groups and stakeholders, as well as urban commons and behavioural experiments regarding conservation practices. Various panels, multi-stakeholder dialogues, poster sessions and book presentations offered an opportunity for the participants to present and reflect on own research, exchange views with peers and develop new ideas for future projects. Regional meetings connected researchers from Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia and encouraged further exchange and collaboration across disciplines and methodological approaches between the continents. Professional translators provided simultaneous translations in the sessions held in English and Spanish. Some discussions allowed for exchange in indigenous languages.

The conference was guided by the sense that common goods cannot be managed with a sole focus on natural science, but also need to include social and cultural dimensions. The multi-stakeholder dialogue “Negotiating a way towards consilience in managing conflicts over commons” initiated discussions among the participants to identify barriers to negotiation, namely that relations, values and needs often remain overlooked. It was also noted that identity, historical mistrust and fear of change can prevent stakeholders from coming together. In the Panel “Theory of the Commons” Yara Al Salman, PhD candidate at the Ethics Institute of Utrecht University, evaluated institutions from a moral perspective using a political philosophy approach and the theory of fair power allocation. She approached the question what people should have control over, arguing that there needs to be internal democracy, all users need to be included and exclusion has to be justified, without being the product of inequality in power or economic injustice.

One of the conference highlights was the ceremony for the Elinor Ostrom Award to acknowledge the work of practitioners, young and senior scholars involved in the field of the commons. Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) promoted a paradigm shift in political science and economics by challenging the “Tragedy of the Commons” – the vision that self-interested individuals strive for benefit maximisation with the outcome of depleting the commons. In her work “Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990)”, she developed design principles on how to sustainably manage commons and demonstrated that cooperation is indeed possible, leading to sustainable handling of the commons, without the need for regulation by central authorities or privatization.

The conference connected science with art, recognising the importance of imagination and sensitivity of all the senses to promote mobilisation for the protection of the commons. Throughout the week, participants could attend the Ostrom film festival screenings, including documentaries and short films. The documentary “Pacificum” portrayed Peruvian settlers’ ancient relationship of respect and devotion to the marine environment, as well as the evolutionary history of our oceans. We will show this documentary as part of the MARIPOLDATA cinema.

The Ocean as a global common

Fiorenza Micheli on the social-ecological vulnerability and adaptation to a changing ocean

On day one of the conference, Keynote speaker Fiorenza Micheli, marine ecologist and conservation biologist from the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University and the Center for Ocean Solutions, drew attention to the importance of our oceans as a global common. She gave a talk on the social-ecological vulnerability and adaptation to a changing ocean. Emphasizing the challenges of overfishing, ocean acidification, pollution and extraction affecting our oceans, she quoted Lubchenco and Gaines (2019) that “now is the moment for more scientists to pivot from simply documenting the tragedy underway to also creating scalable solutions”. She reminded of the importance of our oceans for food production and nutrient security, suggesting that examples of successful solutions can foster positive change. In the questions and answers after her talk, her advice to Early Researchers was: “Collaborate a lot and early and be curious”. She stressed the need for interdisciplinary collaboration, incorporating multiple disciplines and methods. Micheli called for action regarding the problem of marine plastic pollution, indicated however, that there are further challenges facing our oceans which are not as visible, such as ocean acidification.



The following days of the conference also offered room for exchange on sustainable handling of our oceans. The panel “Global Commons” provided an opportunity for me to present my research on a potential design of a Global Plastics Treaty to eliminate marine plastic pollution. Current efforts to eliminate marine plastic pollution have failed so far and an internationally legally binding agreement has the potential to overcome current governance gaps. But what needs to be considered when drafting such a treaty? My master thesis was developed into the article “Plastics at Sea: Treaty design for a global solution to marine plastic pollution, co-authored with Philippe Le Billon, Professor at the University of British Columbia. The main arguments of the paper are the importance of including a) the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities; b) an adequate scope considering land-and sea-based sources, as well as chemical additives and all stages of the lifecycle of plastics; c) issue-linkage to international plastics trade; d) a financial mechanism to support implementation measures; e) built-in flexibility to adapt to changes; f) effective monitoring, reporting and review procedures; and g) enforcement through incentivising compliance and deterring non-compliance. The audience showed great interest in the topic and raised the idea to direct this research to stakeholders in order to help its way to implementation.

Chair of the panel on Global Commons, Achim Schlüter, Professor for Social Systems and Ecological Economics, from the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT), Bremen, Germany, presented on the privatisation of the oceans, including resources, space, governance and knowledge. Actors differ in their interests and needs and act within existing power asymmetries. As motivations and drivers of such privatisation, he named overexploitation, excludability and rivalry problems, blue growth, the creation of new products and innovation incentives. Distribution efforts, however, risk excluding the ones who need it the most from the use of space and resources and key knowledge that allows for high profits could exclude the most vulnerable. Questions regarding the access to and exploitation of resources and ocean space are also the central issues that the BBNJ treaty aims to address. It can be seen that there are substantial overlaps between the challenges and opportunities of commons management in coastal areas and in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ).

Conference participants in the multi-stakeholder dialogue with indigenous people

Indigenous knowledge for the protection of the commons

The importance of indigenous, traditional and local knowledge in protecting the commons was emphasised throughout the conference with several sessions, presentations, multi-stakeholder dialogues, movies and key notes. Examples of indigenous knowledge systems and science collaborations, the role of the communities in managing commons, as well as their relationship to Mother Earth shed light on the diversity of knowledge. The multi-stakeholder dialogue “How can indigenous governance models, such as Plan de Vida, help protect the commons at a time of global environmental crises?” brought conference participants in exchange with Gil Inoach (Awajún CORPI-SL), Wrays Perez (Wampis Autonomous Territorial Government) and Julio Cusurichi (Shipibo-FENAMAD), Liliana Pechene and Jeremias Tunubala (Misak local community activists and Plan de Vida practitioners).

In the session “Polycentric Governance and Cultural Resources”, Sibyl Diver from Stanford University presented on indigenous science in water governance. While indigenous knowledge is often referred to as an “alternative form of science”, she studies indigenous communities forming science networks in the Klamath River Basin, US. To understand how indigenous knowledge is increasingly included in policy making on the local and international level is helpful for the MARIPOLDATA project, regarding references to traditional and indigenous knowledge in the BBNJ negotiations. The presentation of Roger Merino, Research Professor of Public Policy and Legal Theory at the Universidad del Pacífico, in the session “Indigenous people and multilevel governance” opened some further questions: Are policy makers willing to include indigenous and traditional knowledge into current frameworks or is the reference to indigenous knowledge simply a form of legitimisation for own policy objectives?

While the majority of sessions focused on commons on the local and regional level, much can be transferred to the case of the oceans as a global common. Conflicts over access to resources, the interdependency of different stakeholders, a moral responsibility to take into account the existence of future generations and differing concepts of knowledge to manage the commons are prevalent in cases of local commons, as much as in the BBNJ negotiations. How the stakeholders with their different capacities will account for the diverse knowledge systems to be included in the negotiations will be central for the outcome of a BBNJ agreement.







Off to a great start

On the 21st of May, MARIPOLDATA had its project launch. The event was open to the public and attracted over 50 people from academia, ministries and non-governmental organisations. Dr. Julien Rochette from the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) shared his expertise on ocean governance and highlighted the need for a new legal framework to account for updates in ocean science and the integration of new scientific findings to protect our ocean. Before the event, a workshop with Dr. Julien Rochette was an opportunity for the MARIPOLDATA team to exchange experiences and ideas on how to study science-policy interrelations in marine biodiversity politics.  

Expert-Workshop with Dr Julien Rochette (IDDRI)

Workshop: Julien Rochette (IDDRI), Petro Tolochko, Arne Langlet, Alice Vadrot (MARIPOLDATA)

The day of the kick-off started with a workshop with Dr. Julien Rochette, from the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI). He is coordinating a team specialised in ocean governance on the regional level. For the MARIPOLDATA team, this was a great opportunity to reflect on first observations from the BBNJ negotiations in April, discuss concepts, ideas and current issues related to the EBSAs (Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas), develop ideas on how to conceptualise and understand the role of science in international relations, as well as exchange experiences on which methodology to use to understand the field of marine biodiversity research.

Throughout the day, the discussions ranged from broad concepts and framings of marine biodiversity data to specific methodological approaches. The workshop posed important questions, some of which the MARIPOLDATA team will dedicate themselves to in the process of the project: How does science influence international relations and in particular, the negotiations regarding marine biodiversity? Who are the scientists and which avenues do they use to communicate their findings? What is the role of scientists – are they supposed to exclusively provide scientific data, or is their responsibility also the interpretation of their results, policy recommendation and implementation, or even decision-making? What do we mean by scientific data? And what do we know about indigenous and local knowledge and how does this play a role when it comes to marine biodiversity protection? What data is relevant in international attempts to protect marine biodiversity and how can this data be communicated, governed and shared?  These and many other questions will be relevant in the work of MARIPOLDATA.

The Project Launch

A diverse audience attending the Kick-Off presentations


In the evening, the project was presented to a diverse audience of ministry representatives, NGOs, different university departments and research institutes, including different disciplines of social and natural sciences. The aim was to introduce MARIPOLDATA research aims and objectives and to reach out to a future network.

Not only the audience came from a wide variety of academic backgrounds and institutions – but also the event’s speakers:



Hajo Boomgarden giving the Welcome Address



In the welcome address, Univ.-Prof. Dr. Hajo Boomgarden (Dean of the Faculty of Social Science) emphasised the relevance and importance of MARIPOLDATAs research and highlighted that the project has great potential in conducting ground-breaking research through the combination of qualitative and quantitative methods within an interdisciplinary team on a very current topic in which research is lacking. This project is an example of why social sciences research is important to address environmental problems and contribute to issues that seem to exclusively be of technical nature.


Barbara Prainsack at her presentation on the global commons



Our ocean constitutes one of the global commons, as they can only be governed with cooperation among all states. Univ. Prof. Dr. Barbara Prainsack (Deputy Head of the Department of Political Science) provided the audience with an overview of the history of global commons. She gave an introduction of the tragedy of the commons (Hardin) and ended on the positive note that not all human behaviour is self-interested and that international cooperation for the protection of global commons is possible (Ostrom). And indeed, international cooperation will be needed in the negotiations of the new legally binding treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ), for the global commons to be protected.





Julien Rochette presenting on the evolution of ocean governance

Currently, human activities impacting the health of our ocean threaten the global commons. Dr. Julien Rochette (IDDRI) presented the challenges our ocean faces, including plastic pollution, tourism on coastlines, deep seabed mining, over-fishing and ocean acidification. Increasing efforts to protect the ocean are underway through a complex ocean governance framework, including overarching UN Sustainability Development Goals, various UN bodies, sectoral and regional conventions, as well regional fisheries organisations. After mapping the fragmented ocean governance framework, he highlighted the main challenge is implementation. There is the need to protect “the neglected half of our planet”, referring to the High Seas, as they make up 45% of the Earth’s surface and 64% of the world’s oceans. Various instruments already exist to protect the ocean, however, provisions of the law of the sea were developed on the basis of a little understanding of marine biodiversity in the deep sea and the open ocean. How can a global instrument that was developed in a time when we thought of the sea-floor as a desert account for protecting the incredible marine biodiversity and ecosystems we now know exist? There is the need for a new legal framework that accounts for the updated ocean science and simultaneously acknowledges that there are still many unknowns and data gaps that need to be filled. He further argues that “we need to connect the dots” and therefore understand that the ocean governance framework on its own is not sufficient but requires to be anchored to other conventions, such as conventions on climate change (COP) and biodiversity (CBD).

The lack of scientific knowledge to fully understand the deep sea and marine biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction (ABNJ) was also highlighted by Julie Rigaud from the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, who joined the kick-off event with a video message. She presented on the role of the UN decade in the science-policy interface and emphasised the need for ocean science and data collection and sharing and how current UN goals seek to develop knowledge, build infrastructures and foster partnerships.

Alice Vadrot presenting MARIPOLDATA

Ass.-Prof. Dr. Alice Vadrot has always had the ambition to understand this relationship between science, policy and politics. Her idea for the research project MARIPOLDATA now makes it possible to investigate this question by analysing ongoing negotiations for marine biodiversity protection. MARIPOLDATA is important for progressing international politics and marine biodiversity protection because it addresses challenges and opportunities of the science-policy interface, new technological developments, digital infrastructures and data sharing. Combining global perspectives with regional and local needs and acknowledging global inequalities related to science and data infrastructures makes the research project unique and highly relevant in understanding new power relations in world politics. The project aims to innovate methodologies and concepts for studying the role of science in ocean politics and to create networks between scientists, policy makers and practitioners.

In the following years of the project, the MARIPOLDATA team: Post-Doc Petro Tolochko, the two PhD students Arne Langlet and Ina Tessnow-von Wysocki, and the Research Administrator Emmanuelle Brogat will support her in answering the questions: How are negotiations shaped by science? What is the science that shapes the negotiations? How does scientific capability shape negotiating positions?


The new MARIPOLDATA team

The project includes an investigation of the emergence of BBNJ, an analysis of marine biodiversity expertise, an examination of marine biodiversity data in international politics and a comparison of different national and regional case studies. MARIPOLDATA’s aim is to identify how governments use and contest scientific and technical knowledge, to conceptualise new forms of power in international politics and to analyse inequalities related to the distribution of scientific and technical knowledge and their influence on governments’ positions in international negotiations. This will identify the interaction between science, politics and policy and transform our understanding of the role of data and monitoring in governing the ocean.

Considering the diverse group of people from different academic fields, it was no surprise that the presentations were followed by a wave of interesting questions and comments from the audience, including general questions on approaches to the project and specific questions on the methodology of the case studies. One attendee raised the question whether international law was a focus area of the project. While being closely linked to international law through the analysis of the intergovernmental negotiations at the United Nations, research will not be conducted through the lens of international law. Regarding the EU case study, the official EU position in the negotiations will be important, as well as EU-wide systems for marine biodiversity monitoring and data collection.

After the round of questions and answers, the venue turned into a space for dialogue between lawyers, marine biologists, policy makers, university professors, social scientists, diplomats and environmental activists from various countries, including Austria, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the UK, Brazil, Mexico, and the US. The event was held in English, but it did not take long for other languages to be heard over the vegetarian buffet. This event was more than simply a kick-off for a new research project – it was an evening of exchange of ideas and already the beginning of new collaborations in scientific research and the protection of marine biodiversity and our ocean.


MARIPOLDATA Team: Emmanuelle Brogat, Petro Tolochko, Alice Vadrot, Ina Tessnow-von Wysocki, Arne Langlet




Impressions from the second week of BBNJ negotiations and why they became political in the end

From March 25 to April 5, governments met at the UN Headquarters in New York to further advance negotiations on a new legally binding instrument to protect and sustainably use marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ). It is expected that by 2020, governments would agree on establishing a new treaty covering four central issues, which are currently not sufficiently regulated under existing maritime law: 1) Marine Genetics Resources (MGR), 2) Area-based Management Tools (AMBTs) as well as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), 3) Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and 4) Capacity Building and Marine Technology Transfer (CB&MTT).

While the overall objective of the treaty is to create a framework to conserve and protect BBNJ, it also carries the potential to act as a vehicle to close substantial gaps between developed and developing countries in exploring and exploiting the oceans. During the first week of negotiations, we observed discrepancies between governments as wide ranging as if the principle of “Common heritage of mankind” should be applied to marine biodiversity in ABNJ or not (see MARIPOLDATA blog from 1st of April). In the following, we will give an account of the second week of negotiations, in which we participated as observers and as part of the delegation of the International Studies Association (ISA).

The second week of negotiations

The second week started off where the first week had ended: with agenda item three Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and the idea that some kind of assessment of potentially harmful effects on the health of marine ecosystems and of marine biodiversity should be undertaken before a state or a company may explore, exploit or pursue any activity in ABNJ. The essence of this agenda item tackles “who” is entitled or obliged to undertake “what” kind of assessment, “how” and based on what criteria. Because an EIA would cover areas that are not under the responsibility of a nation state but may be located in close proximity to the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and national territories of a coastal state, tensions emerged as to who will conduct environmental impact assessments, how and on what.

Arne Langlet and Alice Vadrot during the 2nd week of negotiations

The potential role of a scientific body

The views of governments on the “who” question, mainly differed in relation to whether it should be a state-driven or a science-driven process. Many governments wished to retain the decision-making power to initiate and conduct EIAs to states themselves; others preferred creating a scientific body, which would receive the authority to independently perform these tasks. Some national delegations, particularly from the group of the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) emphasized the concept of adjacency in this context. While adjacency was until now understood as the geographical proximity of a state´s EEZ to the area beyond national jurisdiction which is to be managed, PSIDS argued that, it should not only be understood in terms of geographical, but also ecological proximity. They justified their claim by referring to the concept of “ecological connectivity”.

“Ecological connectivity” can be defined as “a complex natural phenomenon linking various components of marine ecosystems in time and space” (IIED 2019). According to the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) “ecological connectivity” between ABNJ and coastal waters occurs via two distinct processes: (1) passive circulation-driven connectivity and (2) migratory connectivity” (ibid). It must be noted that such a definition – although widely accepted in the academic realm – is not yet in the BBNJ draft.

“Fish do not have passports”

While the understanding that animals and water masses in the ocean move and connect large parts of the planet may not sound particularly surprising, it does bring substantial difficulties for the governance of marine biodiversity in ABNJ. It is through side events, organized by NGOs, scientific communities and other stakeholders, that such debates are addressed and discussed in the framework of the BBNJ process. For example, “ecological connectivity” was addressed in more depth during a side event hosted by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). According to Ekaterina Popova from the National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton UK, “ecological connectivity” is a rapidly developing research area, which highlights many aspects that should be considered by policymakers.

Understanding and acknowledging the effects of “ecological connectivity” in this way comes with consequences and questions for policymaking. How should states conserve a population of migratory species that directly crosses the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of a large number of countries as well as areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ)? This issue was discussed in a side event hosted by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP-WCMC). At this occasion Daniel Dunn from Duke University and Steven Fletcher from UNEP- WCMC introduced “Mico”, a platform allowing scientists to jointly investigate migratory connectivity and make this information accessible to everyone. Such research efforts have shown that fish stocks of high seas and in EEZs are interconnected, or as one delegate put it: “fish do not have passports”.

A redistribution of responsibility?

While recognizing “ecological connectivity” in the BBNJ process would significantly increase the scientific credibility and evidence base of a new treaty, it also comes with important consequences for how the responsibilities and duties of states would be distributed. If “ecological connectivity” is included in the instrument, adjacent states would for example play a particular role in assessing impacts of activities in ABNJ, because their EEZs and coastal zones are particularly affected by them, for the good and the bad.

Activity or Impact Based?

The concept of “ecological connectivity” was not only mentioned in the discussion about “who” should be in charge of EIAs but also played a particularly crucial role regarding questions on “what” should be assessed. The room was divided between governments that prefer an activity-based approach – evaluating which activities in ABNJs are harmful to the environment – and an impact-based approach, which would evaluate the potential impacts of any activity on the environment. Assuming that an EIA would be conducted following the impact-based approach and under full recognition of “ecological connectivity”, the regulations for pursuing economic activities on the high seas would become potentially much stricter. In such a case, the state or company would have to demonstrate that the proposed activity would not only be harmless to the area where it will be conducted, but possibly also to all connected species in national waters. In such a case, adjacent states, whose EEZ might be particularly affected would be given a special role in conducting such environmental assessments.

What is the legitimate knowledge to assess the state of our oceans?

Almost all states agreed that environmental impact assessments should be based on the “best available science”. However, there was less agreement if, and if yes to what extent EIAs should rest upon a fixed set of internationally agreed and globally applicable criteria. Should there be a minimum standard for EIAs or a flexible framework to account for already existing regional or national best practices? Or should the opportunity of a new global treaty be used to formulate ambitious criteria to be applied to all EIA on BBNJ? A list of content-requirements for EIA was part of the negotiated text, but could not be agreed upon. While some states argued for a rather thin outline, other governments- specifically from the global south- proposed to include many specific content-requirements such as socioeconomic impacts and the description of alternatives to the proposed activity. Some developing states also highlighted that “best available science” and shared criteria for EIAs also imply that the new treaty should recognize the need of developing countries to be empowered to contribute to the production of ocean science considered for EIAs, especially, if they are based on a specific set of internationally agreed ambitious criteria. Otherwise, many countries would be limited in their contributions to developing a shared scientific knowledge base for EIAs.

This brings us to the question of what counts as legitimate knowledge on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. Many governments from the global south, specifically from the group of the like-minded Latin American countries and the Pacific Small Island Developing States argued that traditional knowledge should be equally recognized and integrated into EIA. They highlighted the fact that local and indigenous communities living in coastal areas have developed extensive knowledge on marine biodiversity, because of their dependence on ocean ecosystems and the practices they have developed to live with and from the ocean. They hold knowledge on species diversity and other characteristics of oceans ecosystems, which has been passed from generation to generation over centuries and which therefore should be included into the body of knowledge relevant to EIAs. Those governments that supported the inclusion of TK also argued that what scientists describe by using the term “ecological connectivity” is at the core of what local and indigenous people have experienced and captured with the notion of  interconnectivity for a long time: the relation between humankind and the ocean.

Whilst there was agreement that traditional knowledge should not substitute, but complement modern science, governments had different views on how to bridge the gap between those that have advanced scientific and technical infrastructures to conduct ocean science in ABNJ and those that have not.

Capacity building or how to close technology gaps between states

Capacity building and marine technology transfer (CB & MTT) constitute key pillars of the future treaty, particularly from the perspective of developing countries. The distribution of capabilities among states to conduct scientific research in the open ocean are unequally distributed around the globe. Only a few nations such as for example the US, Japan, Australia, Canada and members of the European Union (EU) have established the necessary scientific and technological infrastructures enabling them to systematically study ABNJ and the deep sea. There are no regulations in place, which would limit access to BBNJ for scientific purposes, despite the fact that access is inseparably linked to the capacities to conduct science in these areas. According to many developing states, capacity building should be linked to questions of access in order to account for technology gaps and an unjust distribution of scientific capability. This is also why

Full Room on Wednesday April 3rd for the discussion on Institutional Settingss

developing states support the idea to include the “common heritage of mankind” into the text of the new instrument, because it would support the idea of mandatory and monetary forms of capacity building, which could account for a distribution of benefits resulting from marine scientific research on BBNJ. In contrast, many developed states preferred non-monetary forms of capacity building such as through the sharing of information on research cruises activities and of specific oceanographic data. The views on what falls under capacity building, how detailed the list of tasks should be and how such processes would look like in practice differed significantly and remain to be discussed at the next BBNJ negotiations in August.

How to institutionalize the new treaty

After governments addressed the four packages of the new treaty, they turned to issues related to the implementation and design of the new instrument, including its decision-making body, the establishment of a scientific advisory body and other matters related to the way in which the future treaty should operate. Many governments pointed to the fact that such issues can only be addressed if the content of the treaty is agreed and that duplication with other existing treaties and instruments should be avoided. Nevertheless, some governments showed more willingness to establish a robust and all-encompassing institutional setting than others. While Russia, the US and Japan opted for minimalistic arrangements, many developing states refereed to (elements of) the United National Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as potential role models for the new treaty.

Why negotiations became political towards the end

The second intergovernmental session came slowly to an end. Governments expressed the wish to receive some kind of zero draft containing all options for which there was support during the two weeks of negations as a basis for the third intergovernmental session in August this year. Negotiations started and ended with a very positive atmosphere and despite many divergent views on a number of issues delegates and chairs kept a positive attitude, which everybody present in the room could sense.

The positive spirit was, however reversed abruptly, when a delegate from the EU took the floor on a rather formal and – at the first glance- less contentious issue introduced by the president of the negotiations towards the end: the credentials of governments, which took part in the negotiations. The delegate from the EU started her intervention by questioning the credentials of Venezuela. The room was silent, and delegates were looking at each other seemingly anticipating the reactions that this statement would cause. The delegate of the EU continued and pointed to the current situation in Venezuela, the disputed presidency of Nicolás Maduro and the EU´s support for Juan Gerardo Guaidó Márquez, who is recognized as acting President of Venezuela by 54 governments. Under these circumstances, the Venezuelan participation in these negotiations would not be legitimate. A cascade of interventions from Russia, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua followed, sharply criticizing the EU for its statement, which would destroy the positive spirit of the BBNJ negotiations and the consensus-oriented process between governments so far. The EU`s statement would contradict the UN principles and the sovereignty of states, which forms a baseline for multilateralism, which the EU would perpetuate by questioning Venezuela’s credentials. It was the first time during the two weeks that Venezuela took the floor in the negotiations, pointing to the sovereignty of its country and the democratic legitimacy of its president. The EU delegate, which made the intervention, was shaking and the tension in the room was remarkable. Subsequently Peru made a statement on behalf of several Latin American countries, Canada, the Czech Republic and other governments proposing that credentials should be accepted, but that these countries share concerns over developments in Venezuela and the legitimacy of Maduro. The president proposed to accept Venezuelan credentials and the issue on credentials was thereafter closed.

While the tensions regarding Venezuela’s credentials came as a surprise for most observers, they unpleasantly reminded us that multilateralism is fragile and symbolic power not as symbolic as one would wish.

This article has been written by Alice Vadrot and Arne Langlet


Impressions from the first week of negotiations on marine biodiversity

From March 25th to April 5th 2019 the second round of negotiations on an international legally binding instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) is held in the UN Headquarters in New York. The new instrument -if governments agree- will be established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and addresses gaps in current international law related to the governance of marine biodiversity in international waters. A third and fourth round of negotiations taking place in August 2019 and spring 2020 are expected to lay the ground for consensus on a new instrument shaping the conditions for how we study and use marine biodiversity in the future.

Fairness in exploring and exploiting the oceans?

The questions, which governments address, are wide-ranging and the proposed solutions carry the potential to transform how we study and govern our oceans in the future. How can the interests of different governments on the use of marine biodiversity be balanced with the need to protect and conserve marine biodiversity for future generations? This week, governments addressed the issues of Marine Genetic Resources (MGR) and Areas-based management tools (ABMT) and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) based on the President’s aid to negotiations, which was developed to facilitate the negotiations and give an overview on all options that had been proposed by governments during the Preparatory Committee and the first session of negotiations, which took place in New York in September 2018.

Questions addressed

What are the criteria for identifying areas in need of protection? Who can apply these criteria and designate new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)? If designated, who has the authority to manage and monitor these areas and do certain governments have more responsibilities in doing so than others? Should the technology gap between governments from the global north and the global south and the different capabilities of states to explore and exploit biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction be addressed, and if yes how? Does a new treaty imply changes to existing legal frameworks of the law of the sea? As government do not seem to want any changes to the existing framework, what is it then that a new treaty will actually do?

Marine Genetic Resources (MGRs)

The debate about marine genetic resources deals with the possibility to use a variety of species living in the deep sea for commercial purposes by decoding and analyzing their genetic information. Although knowledge about marine genetic resources and about the potential fields of application is largely lacking up to date, the sheer possibility that genetic information of species found outside of national jurisdictions could become commercially exploited in the future makes this debate a fundamental one. In the negotiations, it quickly became clear that a substantial divide between developing countries and a number of developed countries exists. It had been agreed that some sort of benefit sharing should take place in relation to marine genetic resources and the future commercial use of them but the scope, the process and the rules under which the benefits would be shared caused disagreement.

Is the genetic information of deep sea species a common heritage of mankind?

Place where we were sitting with view on national representatives

Several countries such as the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) and Brazil on behalf of the Latin American and likeminded countries favour that marine genetic resources should be treated as “common heritage of mankind”. This principle of “the common heritage of mankind” underpins the current international seabed regime, meaning that all resources found on the seabed in areas beyond national jurisdiction belong to all humans and future generations equally. They are “common goods”. In consequence, if a company wishes to exploit natural resources in the seabed it is obliged to share the benefits. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is mandated to make sure that all benefits arising from the exploitation of minerals lying on the seabed in areas beyond national jurisdiction are fairly distributed. Some developed countries such as the USA however, strictly reject the application of this principle to marine genetic resources and prefer a process in which companies or states share in a voluntary way and only are supposed to share non-monetary benefits. Non-monetary benefits could include for example genetic repositories and other scientific capacities, including the transfer of marine technology. It was proposed to establish an open access data sharing mechanism in form of a one-stop clearing house, which contains not only genetic repositories but also information about date and place of excursion cruises.

From a scientific perspective it was noted that the sharing of data, samples and repositories exists as common practice and that the potential treaty should thus go beyond the existing practice, enabling more international scientific cooperation without placing complicated regulation on scientific research. Following these considerations, it was discussed how such a clearinghouse mechanism should be designed.

Area-Based Management Tools and Environmental Impact Assessments

After all parties presented their opinion on the topic of MGRs, the president moved the negotiation to the second item of the President’s aid, namely the topic of Area Based Management Tools such as Marine Protected Areas. In this item, it was crucial to determine who could establish a marine protected area and based on which criteria. The room was divided on this issue. Countries such as the US and China prefer to create a process in which only states can propose marine protected areas and subsequently have to decide upon the establishment unanimously. Most of the parties such as the EU however, argue that a mechanism is necessary for cases when consensus cannot be reached and the decision-making body would effectively be blocked. Furthermore, some states proposed to open the process of identification of areas that qualify for a MPA to scientific bodies or other non-state parties. Disagreement also existed on the question whether MPAs should be management and chosen according to the precautionary principle or according to the precautionary approach, which would include weaker rules.

On Friday, the floor was opened to give a first impression into the different positions concerning the conduction of environmental impact assessments (EIA). Again, states differed on the view whether such a process should be led by an independent scientific body or by the states themselves.

Positive atmosphere: hoping for a “zero draft”

The first week of negotiations was marked by a very positive atmosphere and the willingness of governments to make progress was very visible through several interventions made. The chair opened the negotiations using the metaphor of a “canoe”, in which all governments are sitting and where everybody has to engage equally to make the canoe move. The metaphor was picked up by some governments and NGOs as well as representatives of scientific communities that signaled their commitment to the process and their willingness to advice, where necessary. The number of observers and representatives of Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) and NGOs, was higher than at the first session and it seems that interest in the process has generally increased.

Each day, two to three side events were organized by IGOs, NGOs and scientific communities to shed light on the most pressing issues and for the purpose of sharing expertise and experiences across different stakeholder groups. In one side event, organized by the International Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, scientists presented ongoing efforts to establish global databases for sharing marine biodiversity data among scientists. The side event was very well attended, inter alia by representatives of the EU and the US, who asked questions about the practicalities to establish some kind of repository under the new instrument through which information on scientific activities on the oceans could be shared and capacity building for developing countries be supported.

Negotiations will continue until the 5th of April. Ideally, a zero draft for the third session in August will be ready by then. However, this depends on how the current discrepancies between the different interest groups are resolved and what language will be found to bridge contradictory red lines between government positions.

This article has been written by Arne Langlet and Alice Vadrot

Why negotiations on marine biodiversity “came close to collapsing”

From the 17th to the 29th of November 2018, governments met in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt, to negotiate issues related to the protection and sustainable use of biodiversity in the framework of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). “Marine and Coastal Biodiversity” was on the agenda, which is why I participated in the negotiations as a representative of the University of Vienna and in my position as a Principal Investigator of MARIPOLDATA. In the following, I will give an account of the negotiations and shed light on the tensions that emerged between governments and what these tensions tell us about the place of science in international marine politics.

The venue from outside


The 14th Conference of the Parties of the CBD was held at the International Congress Center (SHICC) of Sharm El Sheik, close to a seemingly provisional bus terminal, where buses regularly shuttled between the conference hotels, mostly located at the seaside, and the conference venue, which was rather remote. Arriving from the Airport in the middle of the night, one could sense that Egypt was more than proud to host the 14th COP. The airport and the highways were covered by large posters welcoming delegates from all over the world, national delegates, representatives of NGOs, local and indigenous communities, business, academia and research and other UN agencies and bodies.



Place, from where I did many observations

148 governments and 3828 individuals

COP 14 belongs to the so-called “mega-event”, where high diplomacy is performed and where, for the period of two weeks, the global biodiversity community from A like African Development Bank Group to Z like Zoological Society of London met.148 governments and 3828 individuals participated in the negotiations. The size of the national delegations varied significantly. While the German delegation, for example, comprised 36 delegates, Brazil sent 66 representatives and Bolivia 4. Austria sent 25 delegates, a rather large number, which can be explained by the fact that Austria had the EU Presidency and was in charge of organising the EU position and speaking on behalf of its member states. Because of security issues, some governments did not send any representative; other governments restricted travelling of their delegates to Sharm El Sheik and Kairo.


The venue from inside

Egypt, the host of COP 14, had a very keen interest in marine issues. The longstanding representative of Egypt to CBD COPs, Moustafa Fouda, Minister Advisor on Biodiversity, is himself a marine biologist. Marine and coastal biodiversity of the red sea was present at the venue through pictures and advertisements covering the walls and rooms of the Congress Centre, which nearly gave the impression that the whole COP was actually about marine issues. Several side events addressed marine biodiversity and were used by government representatives and representatives of NGOs and academia, to discuss progress made in implementing Marin Protected Areas (MPAs), marine biodiversity monitoring programmes, technologies and practices. On Saturday, November 23rd, during the break from negotiations, a “Sustainable Ocean Day” was organised by the CBD Secretariat, in which surprisingly most of the national delegates, which took part in negotiations on marine issues, participated. Including myself.


Negotiations on “Marine and Coastal Biodiversity”


The negotiations on item 25 “Marine and Coastal biodiversity” only stared on day 3 of the COP namely on November 20th. The chair opened the floor for interventions on the draft text, including comments on the different options proposed. The interventions were never-ending and marine biodiversity turned very quickly into a controversial issue, which the partly opposing view of some delegations showed. Tensions emerged regarding the symbolic constraint on national sovereignty and jurisdiction, potential effects on conflicts related to disputed marine areas, and the recognition of the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its on-going efforts to establish a new legally binding instrument for marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Governments, who had to call their capitals for further advice, constantly interrupted negotiations.

Why is marine biodiversity so controversial?

In 2008, CBD COP 9 decided to address the protection and sustainable use of marine biodiversity through a “purely scientific process”, particularly to avoid conflicts related to the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is not recognized by all member governments of the CBD (e.g. Turkey, Venezuela, and Columbia). The idea was to tackle the protection of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction through regional workshops, where scientists could make the first move by synthesising marine biodiversity data for identifying ecologically or biologically significant marine areas (EBSAs) in need of protection in open-ocean waters and deep-sea habitats (COP IX/20). The EBSA descriptions rely on different types of data and the scientific input of experts nominated by governments and relevant organisations. In a final step, the draft descriptions as produced by the experts, including geo-locations and scientific references, are compiled into negotiation text and then adopted by governments before being entered into a digital repository. Since 2008, more than 300 EBSA were described and approved by governments. Some of them are located within national jurisdiction, others in areas beyond national jurisdiction, and some in territories of two states and in international waters and so on. However, once entered into the repository, how can the descriptions be changed and new ones added if they belong to an area already covered by a workshop?

Intergovernmental versus national processes

In other words, borders were the Pudels Kern, which is why negotiations “came close to collapsing” (ENB 2018, p. 2) . Therefore, when the chair opened the floor for intervention, almost 40 governments asked for it and made rather detailed interventions on the proposed text. They continued to the break and had to stop, because of plenary. They continued the next day when the chair had to conclude that a contact group had to be established to balance the diverging views of the different delegations. The contact group met 5 times and negotiations often progressed until midnight. The most difficult part concerned the modalities for changing EBSAs located in national waters of one state. While China, Korea, Singapore, Turkey and Japan, were in favour of establishing an intergovernmental process, the EU (mostly because of the UK and Greece), New Zealand, Argentina, Columbia and Brazil opted for a national process. Columbia in line with other governments such as Brazil and Argentina underlined the superiority of national sovereignty over national waters.

An interesting question remains why China, Korea and Japan formed –at least until the last day- a coalition to support the idea of an intergovernmental process. One could speculate that an intergovernmental process enables governments to control the behaviour over others, particularly regarding disputed marine areas. If the EBSAs already agreed on are changed through a purely national process with no reporting obligations, the descriptions might cover the territory, which is disputed. While the “purely scientific process” and the EBSA descriptions do not imply “the expression of any opinion whatsoever […] concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries” governments were concerned about potential effects of prejudicing through scientific descriptions.

The effects of new science and data (infrastructures)

A continuous process for monitoring and modifying EBSAs is crucial, for maintaining the scientific credibility of the descriptions by updating them with scientific insights and new marine biodiversity data, rapidly developing inter alia because new technologies for collecting and analysing data are applied to ever broader

and deeper areas of the oceans to explore its geography and biological diversity. New detection methods, sampling regimes, big data infrastructures, digitisation of historical data and attempts to combine remote sensing and genetics have created new approaches to safeguard marine biodiversity, enhance national biosecurity and track biodiversity monitoring and modelling into the future. Big environmental data sets and automated analysis shape expectation towards new forms of governing the oceans, which is exemplified by the debate over EBSAs and the modalities for modifying their borders. While the adoption of EBSAs over the past 10 years was rather uncontroversial, the question on how to modify them pushed diplomacy to its margins.

In the end, governments adopted the new EBSA descriptions without any controversy and decided to postpone further debate on how to modify EBSAS and add new ones to the next meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) of the CBD (see brackets and unresolved text in CBD COP 14 Decision 14/9) . It remains to be seen if an agreement can be reached at the CBD SBSTTA or at next COP, which will take place in China in 2020.


MARIPOLDATA: An opportunity for ground-breaking research

One year ago, I started to put together my ideas for a submission to the Starting Grant scheme of the European Research Council (ERC). Inspired by research conducted during my two-year stay at the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) of the University of Cambridge, debates with my distinguished colleagues and a succession of great discussions and workshops with Hannah Hughes from Cardiff University, I sat down over the summer last year to write a proposal strong and creative enough to convince the SH2 panel on Institutions, Values, Environment and Space of the ground-breaking character of my research- as the ERC frames it- and my research profile. They evaluate both your ideas and, yourself.

After I progressed to the second stage of the evaluation process, I was invited for an interview, which took place in Brussels on the 30th of May. An 8-minute presentation, which in the end I nearly knew by heart. The presentation was followed by 17 minutes of questions by a panel, which was very welcoming and merciless at the same time. I decided to go hiking 250 km on the South West Coast Path from Newquay to Falmouth the week before the interview and this was the best thing I could have done to be mentally prepared for the 25 minutes in front of the ERC panel. After the presentation, I even lost my voice and all the energy I accumulated during our walk along the Cornish coast.

Last Friday- after weeks of waiting and thinking about every single answer I gave- the ERC communicated the results of the last call and I am more than proud to be one out of 403 researchers, who obtained an ERC Starting Grant and get the opportunity to create their own research teams and conduct the research they believe in.

I will use my grant to develop and apply a new multiscale and interdisciplinary methodological approach for grounding the analysis of science-policy interrelations in empirical research. I will apply this approach to the newly emerging field of marine biodiversity politics with the ambition to transform our understanding of the role of data and of global and national marine biodiversity monitoring practices and policies in governing the oceans.

The background of my project is the decision of the UN General Assembly to develop a new legally binding treaty under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to protect marine biodiversity and ensure that benefits are equally shared. Within this treaty marine biodiversity data will play a central role: Firstly, in supporting intergovernmental efforts to identify, protect and monitor marine biodiversity. Secondly, in informing governments interested in particular aspects of marine biodiversity, including its economic use and its contribution to biosecurity.

In examining how this data is represented and used, this project will create a novel understanding of the materiality of science-policy interrelations in global environmental politics as well as develop the methodologies to do so. This is crucial because the capacities to develop and use data infrastructures are unequally distributed among countries and global initiatives for data sharing are significantly challenged by conflicting perceptions of who benefits from marine biodiversity research. Despite broad recognition of these challenges within natural science communities the political aspects of marine biodiversity data remain understudied. Academic debates tend to neglect the role of international politics in legitimising and authorising scientific concepts, data sources and criteria and how this influences national monitoring priorities.

The central objective of MARIPOLDATA is to overcome these shortcomings by developing and applying a new multiscale methodology for grounding the analysis of science-policy interrelations in empirical research and by strengthening and deepening the research network I have established with wonderful colleagues in the past years.

I really look forward to it and I would like to thank everybody, who supported my efforts and who believed in me.  I also would like to thank the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) for supporting my work in Cambridge and at the Department of Political Science of the University of Vienna, where I could use my time and resources to write my ideas down.

This blog was posted on July 30, 2018 on