Dr Sabine Christiansen and Dr Sebastian Unger are senior research associates at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies

Deep seabed mining could inflict considerable direct and indirect harm

You may have heard about minerals on the bottom of the ocean. The UK Government sponsors several exploration contracts for UK Seabed Resources (a subsidiary of the American aerospace and security company Lockheed-Martin) in the Pacific Ocean to look for them. These minerals come from the so-called ‘Area’, the deep seafloor beyond the limits of national jurisdiction and far out in the global ocean.

This ‘Area’ and its mineral resources represent the ‘common heritage of mankind’. The Law of the Sea Convention, UNCLOS (1982) determines that rather than a free-for-all, this last piece of ocean floor outside the jurisdiction of any coastal state belongs to mankind as a whole and shall be administered in such a way that benefits all, considering in particular the needs of developing countries.

A global intergovernmental organisation made up of all 168 UNCLOS signatories, the International Seabed Authority, was made responsible for regulating access to the Area. Its mandate includes not only the development of mineral resources for the benefit of mankind, but also development measures to ensure protection for the marine environment from the harmful effects which may arise from mining-related activities. This includes the prevention of pollution and interference with the ecological balance, and the protection and preservation of the natural resources, flora and fauna of the marine environment and the overlaying water column.

So, what does ‘common heritage of mankind’ mean, and why might there be a problem? The original idea was one of solidarity and transparency, designed to ensure that marine mining could enable newly decolonised developing states to catch up with industrialised states in economic and social development. But it does not appear that the promises encapsulated in the phrase are being honoured.

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