Imagining the International Seabed Authority as a Planetary Institution for the Seabed as a Commons

Copyright: THE NEW INSTITUTE | Maximilian Glas

internal event
internal event

Imagining the International Seabed Authority as a Planetary Institution for the Seabed as a Commons

A workshop by our programs Reclaiming Common Wealth and Governing the Planetary Commons


The joint workshop organized by our programs ‘Reclaiming Common Wealth’ and ‘Governing the Planetary Commons: A Focus on the Amazon’ and our fellow Frederic Hanusch intends to rethink the International Seabed Authority (ISA) from a planetary perspective. We ask what it would take to transform the ISA into a venue for planetary politics where a variety of actors (human and nonhuman) negotiate the conditions of keeping the planet inhabitable.

In the first part of the workshop, participants will explore the concepts and ideas of planetary thinking and politics in relation to the international regime for the governance of the deep oceans. In a second part, participants will redesign the ISA as an institution of planetary politics and enact planetary politics in a staged session.

The ISA, an international organization with currently 169 members and established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982 appears a suitable object for an exercise of re-envisioning international governance and institutions as sites of planetary politics.

The ISA had been created in order to administer the seabed beyond national jurisdiction and its minerals as the common heritage of humankind. The designation of the seabed as common heritage of humankind was the result of a struggle by newly independent states to prevent a neocolonial scramble for the appropriation of the seafloor and its riches. The same states sought to establish a regime that would allow for the equitable participation in the benefits of deep seabed mining and constitute a cornerstone of a New International Economic Order. Yet, a number of industrial states, including the UK and Germany, only ratified UNCLOS after an Implementation Agreement of 1994 significantly weakened provisions on redistribution, technology transfer as well as the potential role of an international mining corporation - the Enterprise. 

It was only in the course of the Global FInancial Crisis of 2007/2008 and renewed debates about resource scarcity that the ISA once more became the focus of attention of states and industry.  For several years now the ISA's Council has engaged in intensified negotiations over the so-called Mining Code -- the rules, regulations and procedures that shall govern the commercial exploitation of deep-sea minerals on the Ocean floor beyond national jurisdiction. These negotiations address questions concerning the protection of the marine environment, surveillance and compliance, royalties, profit shares and mechanisms for an equitable sharing of benefits. At the same time, these negotiations are explicitly and implicitly negotiations about the constitution of a global commons, distributive justice, value and valuations (of the Ocean, its ecosystems, species and minerals) and the proper pathways to address the climate and biodiversity crises.

These negotiations make visible and proceed along multiple lines of conflicts – between Global North and Global South, between states that act as sponsoring states of mining corporations and those that don’t, between the ISA with its mandate to develop deep seabed minerals and other international institutions primarily mandated with the protection of marine biodiversity, between potentially conflicting uses of the Ocean and the deep seabed, including mining, fishing and the operation of submarine cables. Various actors and interests are present and represented at the ISA and in the Council – humankind and its common heritage (the ocean floor and its minerals) for whom the ISA and sponsoring states shall act as guardians, the contractors (public and private enterprises holding licenses for exploration (and in the future possibly exploitation) of seabed minerals), member state delegations, the Interim Director General of the Enterprise (an international mining enterprise, organ of the ISA and yet to be established), observers who represent or seek to give voice to ecosystems, submarine cables, Indigenous peoples. All the while the main actor may be the manganese nodule without which the International Seabed Authority never would have come into existence.

In recent years the negotiations at the ISA have become increasingly contentious. While more and more states and other actors call for a moratorium on deep seabed mining and draw attention to the lack of scientific knowledge about the deep sea and the potentially far-reaching and destructive effects of deep-sea mining for ecosystems and biodiversity, others seek to press for the ISA’s completion of the mining code so that commercial mining may begin in the near future. Nonetheless, concern for the Ocean keeps delegations and observers, who have come to know each other well over the past years, at the negotiating table. Moreover, the negotiations evidence openings, even if still small, for the infusion of earth system science and Indigenous knowledges. During the past Council session in July 2023, Pacific activists, included in the observer delegation of Greenpeace, drew attention to the migratory routes of whales as well as the spiritual connection of the Pacific peoples to the Ocean floor that is maintained by the migrating whales.

Against this background the workshop seeks to envision the  heated debates about a moratorium and the future of the deep seabed regime as a constitutional moment for the rethinking of the seabed ecosystem as common heritage and the ISA as its guardian. It asks about the institutional design that could turn the ISA into a democratic planetary and posthuman institution where human and non-human actors, whales, cables and nodules might be given a voice and negotiate co-habitation on earth and the deep sea as a Commons.

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