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Mario Soares

The following are extracts from a speech by Dr. Mario Soares, former President of Portugal, Chairman of the Independent World Commission on the Oceans, in Geneva, on 11 October 1996.

"...the Independent World Commission on the Oceans is concerned with the application of the Convention on the Law of the Sea and Agenda 21. It will strive to ensure that the oceans have their place in the world programme for change.

The Commission has its own stake, however, for the oceans form a 'blind spot' in the awareness of planetary problems. Making people throughout the world more aware of the importance of the oceans is a priority task for the future of our planet.

This task can be divided into several parts, all of which we can start performing today.

Therefore, we must make world leaders and the general public aware of the importance of the oceans. The ocean environment is suffering ever more aggression from pollution and the depletion of coastal areas. The main sources of pollution are towns, industry, construction, agriculture, maritime transport, the dumping of waste at sea and tourism.

The oceans are capable of meeting the essential needs of the world population which is constantly growing but they do need to be treated with care. However, in recent years, we have witnessed the over-exploitation of fish stocks, which are shrinking fast, and conflicts that have been called 'fish wars'.

We aim to promote the sustainable utilisation of ocean resources. To be sustainable, development has to allow for improvement in economic efficiency, for protecting and restoring ecological systems and favouring the well-being of people. We cannot, however, claim that sustainable development is part of the normal course of events. The notion of freedom of the seas that governed the oceans for centuries is no longer enough. Whether it is a matter of fishing or dumping at sea, rational management of the oceans practised in a spirit of international co-operation must prevail.

Therefore, the core of the concerns of the Commission is to reinforce the legal and institutional means for governing the oceans. At its second meeting, held in Rio de Janeiro three months ago, the Working Group on Legal Matters reached the conclusion that it was necessary to strive to make the application of the existing legal texts more efficient rather than to expand on them.

Over the past two decades, over 100 programmes and conventions have been adopted on the seas. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea came into effect in 1994. Four years have passed since States adopted the programme entitled 'Agenda 21: An action programme for sustainable development' so it it now time to see what has been done. To what extent have governments and international organisations met the commitments entered into in Chapter 17 on the oceans?

Despite current efforts, progress seems slow. Non-binding rules on maritime conduct still have to be embodied in laws while domestic legislation has yet to be harmonised with international rules and standards. The Commission's working group stressed that non-governmental organisations and other social interest groups should be associated with this process which would help arouse public awareness, inducing people to participate.

Another essential area of study that the Independent World Commission on the Oceans has included in its work programme concerns matters relating to the security of the oceans and their peaceful use.

The end of the Cold War hailed a new geo-political situation. A new approach to security-related goals must include the "security of peoples" as well as the traditional 'security of states'.

The following phenomena are grounds for great concern:

  • the maritime transport of drugs, arms and dangerous substances
  • the internationalisation of terrorism
  • the reemergence of piracy on the high seas
  • movements of displaced persons
  • and conflicts such as the fish wars...

The peaceful use of the oceans should be realised in a spirit of denuclearisation, demilitarisation, the creation of zones of peace and the prevention and settlement of conflicts...

The Independent World Commission on the Oceans has also created working groups on science and technology and on the economy and the ecological viability of the oceans.

The notion of sustainable development must be based on a synthesis of economic and ecological concerns. The Convention on the Law of the Sea developed a different concept of 'property' - that of the common heritage of mankind. How can such a concept contribute to the realisation of the objective of sustainable development? Can it help in overcoming uncertainties?

The notion of 'property' is open to discussion when it comes to sharing the technologies necessary for exploiting the oceans. Nowadays, technology cannot simply be bought. It has to be learnt. The most effective way of effecting a 'transfer of technology' is to set up joint research and development facilities as part of North-South and South-South regional and world co-operation.

The Commission considers that science is not a domain distinct from concerns about the oceans but that it has to be considered together with the legal, economic, social-science, cultural and political aspects. Questions of the application of laws, of developing coastal regions, of managing fishing resources all have consequences that touch on the area of science and technology. Conversely, science and technology play a prime role in the preservation of the oceans which are considered an essential component of the system that supports life on our planet. Basically, therefore, they must make it possible to study the way in which the oceans can affect global climate change and how global change can affect the oceans. These efforts should also be aimed at informing the general public of the potential offered by the oceans and the dangers they are facing.

The Independent World Commission on the Oceans will continue to study these matters. It will also remain open to any possibility of adding other questions concerning the oceans, with a view to drawing up a final reoprt including short and long-term recommendations..."

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