Estimated post reading time: 10 minutes

UrbanMeisters is extremely honoured and delighted to have on-board as guest writer Jean-François Frier, honorary agent of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Monsieur Frier is a retired and extremely respected French diplomat who has handled a very impressive list of diplomatic appointments and positions all around the world for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (USA, Islands of the Indian Ocean, Kuwait, Congo, DRC, UK, South Africa and France). He had been engaged in diverse sustainable development projects and diplomatic issues for over 40 years. Retired only in name, Jean-Francois is very much actively engaged in promoting and advocating Blue Diplomacy for sustainable and responsible management of ocean resources which are so crucial for our eco-system.

We hand over to the esteemed Guest Writer as he explains the urgency for Blue Diplomacy in today’s age.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are solely those of the author.


The Blue Economy Calls for a Blue Diplomacy

by Jean-François Frier

The universe is 14 billion years old, and the earth 4.54 billion. Humans appeared 200,000 years ago, supplanting Australopithecus and spreading over all continents. After the invention of writing 5,000 years ago, history began to accelerate and human populations progressively took over all of the surface land. They divided it up through conquest, war, and the law of treaties. In the industrial age that began less than 200 years ago, all of the land’s resources were being exploited. The sea, on the other hand, which is 70% of the surface of the globe, remained free from any nation, except for a thin ribbon of about 20 km – the territorial waters where coastal states exercise sovereign rights. The only economic activities in the seas, which belonged to all, were fishing and shipping.

An international treaty that came into force only 22 years ago radically changed the situation. Humanity committed itself to a great sharing of the oceans. Unlike the division of land, it is done through application of the law alone and not by virtue of treaties that validate military conquests. It aims to allow the exploitation of the sea, but unfortunately it is accompanied by a runaway rate of destruction of the natural habitat that has rapidly affected a large part of the hydrosphere which had previously been relatively spared.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of The United Nations (FAO), the overexploitation of fishing already threatens to eliminate the populations of seven of the most important fish species. On the other hand, the share of hydrocarbon exploitation occurring offshore has increased from 10% to 30% of the world’s production in the last 50 years. It now extends to very deep sedimentary layers and to Arctic zones that were protected until now. It also contributes to the increase of CO2 emissions and causes serious pollution.

But these developments herald only the beginnings of maritime colonization. This will involve large-scale sea farming of algae, marine animals and fish of interest to us, harvesting new biological resources for pharmaceuticals, agriculture and cosmetics, and the massive exploitation of fossil fuels, polymetallic nodules and mineral deposits – as well as developing all of the energy resources of waves, currents and tides, wind fields, solar energy and salinity. This is known as the Blue Economy. The maritime territories being divided up for such activities are mainly the ones situated above the continental shelves that extend the territories of coastal states. Their distribution begins with an upheaval in the law of the sea that gives these states exclusive exploitation rights in vast areas off their coasts. About 40% of the world’s marine territory is concerned; what remains – that is, mainly the high seas – are still not very exploitable. Nevertheless, they form the common heritage of mankind whose resources will be shared by all … as long as they can be.

Faced with these challenges and risks, it becomes urgent to promote a Blue Diplomacy that is at the service of mankind and not that of states, which are selfish by nature – a diplomacy that promotes the reasonable, sustainable exploitation of the five oceans on which the stability of our planet depends. This is the role of the United Nations, but it is also the role of civil society, NGOs and associations. It is the responsibility of our committed generation, and we can influence the decisions of our governments.


1. The Great Dividing Up of the Oceans

The allocation of vast maritime areas to coastal nations has been in progress since the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an agreement concluded at Montego Bay in 1982, came into effect after more than half of the signatories ratified its terms (1994). This empowered coastal states to modify their maritime borders and benefit from exclusive rights in areas that were sometimes much larger than their land territories.

Territorial waters (which extend 12 nautical miles or a little more than 22 km into the sea) are regarded as the sovereign territory of the respective state. These “belong” to the coastal states. UNCLOS adds zones to their jurisdiction where the states are not sovereign but where they exercise exclusive economic rights. In contrast with the states’ territorial waters, commercial and passenger ships of all nations may pass freely through these zones (whereas military ships are allowed but can be regulated).  These areas are:

  • Zones contiguous to a coastal state’s territorial waters (extending a further 12 nautical miles outward) where the state’s laws apply.
  • Exclusive Economic Zones, or EEZ, which can extend a further 200 nautical miles outward as long as they do not encroach on the rights of another coastal state, and where the rights for fishing and the exploitation of biological and mineral resources (hydrocarbons, polymetallic nodules, metals, etc.) are reserved for the coastal state.
  • Under certain conditions, the EEZ of a coastal state and the associated rights can extend up to 150 additional nautical miles into the high seas on the basis of the continental shelf continuing out that far.

These marine areas, whose delimitation is underway, may thus extend in some cases up to 374 nautical miles from the coasts (12 + 12 + 200 + 150), or 698 km. They will eventually cover nearly 40% of the surface of the world’s maritime areas. A little more than half of these geographic areas have already been attributed. This alteration in the law of the sea has taken place so far without major disputes, with the exception of those in the China Sea, which Beijing claims to control almost entirely – claims rejected by a judgment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that Beijing vehemently contests.

This “legal revolution” has gone widely unnoticed in the media and in public opinion, even while it causes a veritable upheaval of the world as we know it.

Thus, for example, island states with small populations and limited land territories will possess up to 17% of this wealth, or about 7% of the total surface of the oceans. The United States will have the biggest maritime area in the world (11-13 million km²) if it eventually ratifies the convention that it signed more than 34 years ago.

France (643,801 km²), which has ratified UNCLOS, has the world’s second largest maritime territory – more than 11,000,000 km². It is true that this exceptionally vast maritime domain results essentially from rights attached to French overseas territories. Some of those of the Pacific, which represent half of France’s maritime territory, could be tempted to seek independence.

Next are Australia and Russia, which are far ahead of those that follow – New Zealand, Indonesia, Canada and the United Kingdom – and very far ahead of countries like Japan, China, Brazil and India, whose potential maritime areas are half the size while their needs for products derived from fishing are much greater. This is one of the major shortcomings of the international convention. Is it just?

The answer may be for part in the exploitation of the unallocated maritime areas – that is, the high seas and parts of the continental shelf that are not attributed. This territory is defined by UNESCO as the common heritage of mankind. It represents 64% of the total oceans and occupies half the surface of the globe. Its mineral resources, still largely unexploitable, are placed under a “common property” regime and administered through the United Nations by the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The Authority will sell rights for seabed exploitation in high seas to private companies. A comparable mechanism applies to EEZ extended zones that are allocated to coastal states on the basis of continental shelf continuity. After 5 years, 7% of their production will be reallocated to countries in development and countries without border.


2. The Urgency for Equitable and Sustainable Management of the Oceans

In the short term, the benefits received by coastal states must be offset by responsible management and conservation policies. It is particularly urgent for the living resources of the oceans, which, unlike mineral resources, are already being exploited everywhere.

The Convention on Biological Diversity, adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, aims to preserve all land and marine biomass. It commits states to protect marine ecosystems, in particular those of coastal areas and coral reefs. The most visible objective is to create marine protected areas on at least 10% of the surface of the oceans by 2020. The objective is too ambitious, insofar as these parks currently occupy only 3% of the oceanic surface, but it is also insufficient to halt coral bleaching and ocean acidification that accelerate the loss of biodiversity due to resource overexploitation. That is why in 2013 the “Paris Call for the High Seas” proposed that the International Seabed Authority be involved in the management of the resources of the high seas, in particular genetic marine resources, and that it be given the means to carry this out operationally.

Like agricultural soil, the sea must be cultivated to develop its natural biological resources, but it must also be maintained. The sea is one of the most efficient carbon sinks in the world, together with forests. It absorbs a large part of the CO2 emitted on earth. It does this so well that it is reaching its limits today and is facing a serious biological and chemical crisis. The too-rapid absorption in too-great quantities of the CO2 produced by industry results in an acidification of the water and the appearance of anaerobic (non-oxygenated) zones where life disappears.

Through a series of decisions, marine protected areas of 1 million km² and more were created. In 2010 Great Britain established the marine reserve of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean (but continues to rent the island of Diego Garcia to the USA, which stores nuclear weapons there). In the Pacific, Australia created the Coral Sea National Park in 2012 (while authorizing responsible fishing in part of the area), while France added a still larger marine protected area off New Caledonia in 2016. Paris also announced in the same year the creation of the fourth largest marine reserve in the world in the waters of the French Southern and Antarctic Territories, as well as another one around Clipperton Island in the Pacific.


3. Plea for the Governance of the Indian Ocean

Plea for Governance of Indian Ocean- blue diplomacy

But this policy of protected areas only partially answers the need for preservation of the marine environment. It is at the scale of maritime basins that actions to manage maritime trade flows and fish stocks, to preserve biomass, corals and sea plants, and to monitor the chemical composition of waters must be carried out. This requires regional governance of all of the oceans except the Pacific and Atlantic, whose basins are too vast to be concerned.

Most urgent are the oceans of the two poles, which are still relatively protected by ice. The South Pole is under regional management, which promotes the implementation of conservation policies within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty. The partner nations have decided to create the largest marine sanctuary in the world there. Located in the Ross Sea, it will cover some 1.5 million km². In the Arctic, however, melting ice is clearing the Northwest Passage and opening the way to international trade, while Russians, Americans, Canadians and Danes intend to exploit the fisheries and mining resources over which they have exclusive rights. They cooperate in the Arctic Council with 12 permanent observer states, including France, which advocates “high environmental standards” that would lead to the abandonment of the exploitation of most fossil resources, in particular hydrocarbons. In this respect it joins the struggle of Greenpeace, and it is the responsibility of civil society, and therefore of all of us, to support this action. Already the United States and Canada announced in December 2016 their decisions to prevent hydrocarbon exploitation in most of their maritime territories in Arctic and Antartic

The Barcelona Convention and the OSPAR Convention respectively bring together the riparian states of the Mediterranean and of the North-East Atlantic. The China Sea is the subject of such intense dispute between the international community and China that no action is foreseeable just now.

There remains an initiative to be taken for the Indian Ocean. The European Union, member states and UK could play a leadership role in initiating a governance project in partnership with other coastal nations. The UK has been involved with the United States since 2010 in managing the marine reserve of the Chagos Islands. France already has an active policy of preserving the marine environment in its own basins of the southwest Indian Ocean, around Reunion Island and the Glorioso Islands. It has signed a treaty with Mauritius to co-manage the maritime areas surrounding the island of Tromelin, and it can negotiate a similar accord with the Comoros and Madagascar in the Mozambique Channel and in the Mascarenes. Co-managing part of the EEZs would be a means to overcome sovereignty disputes in this area while serving a major ecological purpose. These states could, in a second phase, aim at the shared management of all of the waters of the southwestern part of this ocean through the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), of which they are all members. Thirdly, the IOC, with the support of the EU and the UK, could propose a broadening of this governance to the Indian Ocean as a whole through the Indian Ocean Rim Association, a regional organization bringing together all of the littoral countries including India and Australia and other major partner countries (China, Germany and the United States).

Financing from the United Nations could then be mobilized for undertaking the first concrete project of governance of an ocean, aiming at the preservation of its overall balance and its reasonable and sustainable exploitation for the benefit of all.

The division of the world’s land emerged through 5,000 years of warfare. That of the oceans began some twenty years ago in harmony, at Montego Bay. But, by war or negotiation, we will soon have divided up half the surface of the planet. The allocation of underwater continental shelves is a task of our generation, and it is in the course of our lives that decisions must be taken that will preserve the balance. This is where the Indian Ocean Governance project can contribute, and where each of you can contribute as well by supporting it.

Jean-François Frier – Honorary agent of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

(UrbanMeisters thanks Mr. Michael Strauss, professor in journalism and specialist in International subjects, for working with Jean Francois on the English translation for our readers.)


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