The problem with the ISA protecting the deep

Date: 19 July 2022

Views and Analysis

18-19 July 2022

Negotiations at the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to rush through a mining code for the emerging destructive deep-sea mining industry have begun this week in Jamaica, amid mounting concerns that the body charged with regulating the industry, were it to go ahead, is not fit for purpose.

The continuation of the ISA’s 27th Council meeting has seen civil society and scientists relegated to a windowless basement room, with a live feed to the main negotiating room at the Knutsford Hotel in Kingston.

Despite the restrictions on participation, which were heavily protested by States and Observers alike, the meeting has seen the largest civil society presence in the ISA’s history, a response to growing concerns over the many risks the industry poses to people and planet.

Opening interventions from observer delegations highlighted the clear industry driven agenda embedded within the Mining Code proposed by the International Seabed Authority to regulate the emerging industry with independent scientific assessment entirely missing. The rush to mine the deep has been catalyzed by Nauru Ocean Resources Inc, a wholly owned subsidiary of Canadian would-be miners, The Metals Company, who activated a little known two-year trigger rule, meaning that strip-mining the deep could begin as early as 2023, with whatever rules and regulations are in place.

The DSCC noted the omission of the agreement reached in March on the economic valuation of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration via the marine biological pump; tuna and other fisheries and potential future benefits from marine genetic resources to both current and future generations as well as valuing the damage that would be caused to these ecosystem services by deep-sea mining. The DSCC highlighted the need for a moratorium due to the damage that would be caused by deep-sea mining, the lack of scientific information and the shortcomings of the ISA. Earthworks questioned why the ISA would allow environmental damage in the first place, how could it be justified, and how is humankind be fully and fairly compensated, both present and future generations, for the loss of species, biodiversity, degradation of marine ecosystems when there is no justifiable societal need to open the deep-sea to mining. 

Monday also saw a firefight on the floor of negotiations on the issue of transparency as UN Web TV, the platform that many government officials,  NGOs, media and interested members of the public were relying on to follow negotiations remotely due to the strict restrictions on participation, was abruptly switched off by the Secretariat of the ISA. There was no prior notification, debate or decision by the countries participating in the meeting Council that the webcasting of the meeting would be turned off. This move, together with numerous reports of media access to the meeting being denied, highlights the glaring lack of transparency within the Authority.

States including Chile, Canada, Costa Rica, Italy, Spain, Dominican Republic, New Zealand and Belgium joined observers in calling for full transparency and the reinstatement of the live broadcast. Morocco and France supported turning off the webcasting of the meeting on the basis that negotiators can speak more freely if it is not webcast. An intense debate followed and Costa Rica called for a vote at which point Morocco and France backed down. The DSCC thanked Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, Italy, Spain, Dominican Republic, NZ, and others for supporting transparency and continued webcasting. The Coalition added that the Aarhus Convention on public participation, which is endorsed in the CCZ EMP, and to which many European States are party, requires transparency in fora such as these. Earthworks highlighted the obligation of the ISA under international law to ‘act on behalf of’ and ‘for the benefit of’ humankind as a whole and that any member of the public should be able to follow meetings of the ISA. Given that many delegates had intended to attend physically,  but changed those plans because of the restrictions, intending to participate virtually, turning off live streaming was a double blow. 

The DSCC also brought attention to the decision made by Tuvalu to rescind its deep sea exploration sponsorship,  underlining the issues of environmental damage, liability and common stewardship responsibility faced by sponsoring States, and that this was the first case of a sponsoring State taking such a step. The Coalition asked why there was no mention in the ISA documents or website of that.

Meanwhile,  accusations of bullying, nepotism, accounting  and impropriety within the ISA Secretariat, largely leveled at the Authority’s Secretary General, Michael Lodge, have been made  in a series of social media posts

The highly restrictive access to negotiations for NGOs and scientists and the argument about broadcasting the negotiations together with these new reports of apparent misconduct within the Authority paint a picture of an Authority unfit to regulate what would be the largest mining operation in human history if permitted to go ahead. The DSCC calls for reform of the Authority so that it becomes an effective protector of the deep ocean in areas beyond national jurisdiction – the global ocean commons. Until States agree to review and reform the ISA,  a moratorium is the only way forward.