The final target of SDG 14 is written in legalese. It aims to “enhance the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by implementing international law as reflected in UNCLOS, which provides the legal framework for the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources, as recalled in paragraph 158 of ‘The Future We Want’.” Translation: “We should do what we have legally agreed to do already.”

We’ll get to UNCLOS in a minute. First, how would we know if the world is achieving this objective? The indicator chosen to measure progress is frankly a little vague: it’s the “number of countries making progress in ratifying, accepting and implementing through legal, policy and institutional frameworks, ocean-related instruments that implement international law, as reflected in the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea, for the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans and their resources.” (Can you spot the legal loophole? “Making progress” is not yet carefully defined.)

If you are interested in being a serious ocean policy nerd, you will have to get familiar with this arcane legal terrain of international marine law. So here’s a list of websites to help you dive in an get oriented.


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UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is an international agreement signed in 1982. UNCLOS, which has still not been formally ratified by some nations (principally the United States), is nonetheless the principal global vehicle that defines the different rights and responsibilities of nations when it comes to their use of the world’s oceans. UNCLOS also establishes guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources. If you are serious about understanding how to implement SDG14, and the current global legal frameworks that affect essentially everything in that SDG, getting to know UNCLOS is essential.

  1. The Future we want

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Want to get the whole picture? Back up and re-read “The Future we want”, the Outcome Document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 (also called Rio+20). This was the global agreement that set the SDG process (and thus SDG 14) in motion, as alluded in the text of Target 14.2. Paragraph 158 is the place to go for direct references to the oceans and seas, but it’s worthwhile to scan through the whole thing, to understand where the SDGs as a whole came from. (You might want to re-read the 2030 Agenda while you’re at it.)

  1. Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) (interim) Registry

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The world’s ocean and climate are tightly linked. That means the global agreement on climate change also has a huge impact on the oceans (which absorb half the world’s carbon dioxide, as well as most of the heat generated by global warming). So, what is the world going to do about climate change? When the countries signed the Paris Agreement, they committed to a regular submission of “nationally determined contributions” listing the efforts they plan to undertake in order to achieve the two-degree temperature goal. The submissions of every individual country can be found at this website. You can look up what your country plans to do! Lo and behold, even if all countries do what they said they would do (and that is still a big question mark) we are not even close to holding global temperatures to two degrees. That means our oceans will continue to get warm, acidic, and more voluminous (as ice melts), leading to sea level rise. These “NDCs” also provide a kind of model for the kinds of commitments that countries might one day make on behalf of the oceans. So for all you international legal eagles, review this model carefully. As goes the climate, so goes the oceans.

  1. International Maritime Organization

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The ships that ply the seas have their own rulebook to follow, and when it comes to preserving the marine environment, that rulebook is largely managed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a specialised agency of the United Nations. The IMO focusses on the regulation of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships and their website offers extensive information on anything related to that, for example legal matters.

  1. International Whaling Commission

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Whales are not mentioned in SDG 14, but the IWC — the International Whaling Commission — is an excellent case study for understanding how legal issues in the world’s oceans are often managed: by voluntary agreement. The IWC is not backed by a treaty or any international law. Countries are not, strictly speaking, bound to obey it. And yet they use the IWC platform to issue rules that they then agree to follow — and even the countries that don’t agree with those rules have so far continued to follow them, by creating and then working within certain loopholes. For example, there is a moratorium on commercial whaling; but “scientific” whaling is permitted (as is subsistence hunting for aboriginal peoples). But any country can decide to quit the IWC at any time, and it would then no longer be bound by IWC rules. Confusing? That’s maritime law for you. Start studying!

  1. Eradicating Ecocide

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As a bonus, we venture outside the realm of established legal and voluntary agreement, and into the world of legal activism. Polly Higgins, an international lawyer, is the world’s leading expert on Ecocide — the deliberate destruction of ecosystems. Her proposal is to expand the remit of the International Criminal Court to include Ecocide as an international crime, to stand alongside genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression. Does that idea sound radical? It’s no more radical than the idea that the mass killing of people is deserving of special international legal standing. This excellent website will orient you to this potentially revolutionary legal concept. More detailed information can be found in Higgins’ identically named book, “Eradicating Ecocide” (2nd edition, 2012, Shepheard-Walwyn).

by Friederike May