Sovereignty and the Ocean

Two extremely important ocean examples where opposition of sovereignty and commonality collide.

World Ocean Forum
4 min readSep 30, 2022


Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, sovereignty, in political theory, is the ultimate overseer or authority in the decision-making process of the State and in the maintenance of political and social order. It is a big word, powerful, assured, pompous, as if it embodies and imposes a final certainty, a right, divine, imperial, dictatorial, the final assertion of one thing over another. The voice of sovereignty is morally certain, a final resolution of the unquestionable order of things.

The idea of a sovereign is top of mind these days with the death of the long-reigning Queen of England, ironically having little or no political or moral authority over her subjects, but still a transfer of the agency of authority and order to government subject thereafter to chaotic negotiation and conflicting interests that in so many instances today have paralyzed our ability to decide or to exercise our capacity for change. Sovereignty has become a pole in the clash of opposites, not a debate but a contemporary standoff between extremes — my way, not yours — and there can be no compromise or commonality between.

What about Commonality? Commonality is the state of sharing features or attributes, a function of equitable choice and utility. The ocean is a commonality of interests to be shared by all, and today’s ocean conflicts are the result of an indifference to the interests of others with an equal claim, or equity, in marine natural systems, resources, future potential and benefit for everyone connected worldwide by the sea.

Credit: Stefan Andrews / Ocean Image Bank

There are two extremely important ocean examples where the opposition of sovereignty and commonality collide: first, the UN Treaty for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and second, within it, a treaty for the management of the high seas and seabed, the vast areas outside boundaries of national jurisdiction, negotiations for which were recently stalled at the UN over questions of state autonomy and collective action.

The United States is one of the few nation states that has not ratified the UNCLOS agreement by a vote of the US Senate which has on many occasions failed to approve the treaty for its alleged violation of American sovereignty, a national claim on ocean systems, including oil and gas reserves, seabed minerals, biodiversity and marine genetic resources. Just as the nation asserts its rights of passage on the ocean surface, it also asserts its control over the water column and seabed even beyond the accepted limits of national economic interest. The US is not alone. Russia, for example, has extended its claims to over 70% of the Arctic Ocean, overlapping claims by the US, Denmark and Greenland, Norway, and Canada. To make the point, on August 7, 2007, the Russians went so far as to plant their national flag on the seafloor, under the ice, under the North Pole, a defiant geopolitical stunt and expression of sovereignty that has yet to be resolved.

In the UN high seas treaty negotiations this month, similar divisions became apparent, conflicts over management of marine protected areas, environmental impact assessments, accountability for harm to the seabed biodiversity, and sharing of benefits derived from seabed mining of rare metals and genetic materials. If you look carefully, you will see recurring patterns of focus: extraction, exploitation, commercialization, exclusionary practice, and indifference to conservation and sustainability that underlie comparable past applications that are at the center of the various international climate agreements intended to decrease and redress the outcome of such actions on land. It seems we come to this point again and again: in our attempt to advance new approaches to our engagement with natural resources still remaining, we are stalled by the inevitable questioning of past authority, the dilution of past sovereignty, and the resistance to the commonality inherent in an ocean that serves us all equally and holds almost all the potential for our future food, energy, freshwater, health, and security. Are we really so committed to the mistakes of our past that we would knowingly fail to embrace our future?

Sovereignty must no longer be the ultimate authority of the state. We must now live in a world of commonality in which equity is shared and the resources for survival are not privatized, copyrighted, patented, or excluded for the profit of the sovereign only over the compelling needs of the commons. We can choose to do this; we can ratify UNCLOS to enable; we can negotiate governance of the high seas with common good and equitable benefit in mind.

Nature is sovereign; the ocean rules.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. He is also host of World Ocean Radio, upon which this blog is inspired. World Ocean Radio celebrates 15 years this year, with more than 645 episodes produced to date.

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