Co-Violations: Where Both Human and Ocean Rights Violations Occur

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By Michelle Bender

What are co-violations?

Human rights violations often accompany violations of nature. Earth Law Center’s 2016 updated report analyzed 200 case studies of these “co-violations.”

The information we collected showed that co-violations of nature’s rights and human rights are expanding everywhere, with the global south proportionately more affected. Thirty percent of the cases examined involved harm to indigenous peoples’ rights, despite indigenous people comprising only five percent of the population.[1]

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Since then, a wave of new, increasingly violent cases of rights co-violations has swept across the globe. Many involve arrests and murders intended to silence frontline environmental defenders. These acts are rarely punished. Human victims are branded as enemies of “progress,” and environmental victims are viewed as commodities rather than as living beings.

Human trafficking, corruption, exploitation, and other illegal violations, combined with a lack of policing and proper enforcement of international laws, also represents the deplorable reality of much ocean activity.

The ever-growing presence of human rights violations at sea and the direct and indirect mistreatment of the ocean go hand in hand. Whether in the form of illegal fishing or the forced evacuation of low lying atoll nations affected by climate change, the seas and oceans overflow with crime.[2]

At Earth Law Center we know that legal rights for marine protected areas will help protect both nature and humans from co-violations of their rights at sea. A legal framework is urgently needed because marine communities face problems of such severity.

Disappearing fish means vanishing livelihoods and disrupted ecosystems

A legal framework for marine protected areas will help to protect fisheries from further damage. Fisheries contribute over $100 billion to the global economy[3] with an estimated $375 million coming from coral reefs.[4]

However, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has named over 70 percent of the world’s fish species as either fully exploited or depleted[5], and therefore unlikely to rebound to healthy populations.

Marine scientists found that 10 percent of large predatory fish, such as tuna, swordfish and marlin remain,[6] and 30 percent of shark species are threatened with extinction due to ‘finning’ for shark fin soup.[7] The decline is not only due to direct fishing pressures, but to human activities and exploitative pressures. The already decimated Atlantic Bluefin Tuna population is further struggling to rebuild due to the impacts of the 2010 BP oil spill.[8]

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Dolphins and whales are also declining due to fishing bycatch, direct hunting, and bioaccumulation of toxic pollution such as the ubiquitous microplastics. Many whale species face imminent extinction. These include the North Atlantic right whale, with only about 300 individuals left, and the Western Pacific gray whale, estimated to have fewer than 100 individuals left.[9]

Similarly, about 27 percent of coral reefs (including half the Great Barrier Reef) have already been lost to ocean acidification and other climate factors such as warmer sea temperatures and sea level rise.[10]

Humans are at “high risk of causing . . . the next globally significant extinction event in the ocean” — and soon.[11] A legal framework for marine protected areas is needed now.

Slave labor and the seafood industry

A new scientific paper by Conservation International, the University of Washington and other partners calls on governments, businesses and the scientific community to take measurable steps to ensure seafood is sourced without harm to the environment or to people that work in the seafood industry.[12]

The paper, presented at the United Nations first Oceans Conference in New York in 2017 offers the first integrated approach to taking account of social issues and human rights violations in the seafood industry. The work responds to investigative reports by the Associated Press, the Guardian, The New York Times and other media outlets that uncovered human rights violations on fishing vessels.

The investigations tracked the widespread use of slave labor in Southeast Asia to produce seafood products, and chronicled the plight of fishermen tricked and trapped into working 22-hour days, often without pay, while enduring abuse. Subsequent investigations have documented the global extent of these abuses. [13]

Earth Law for marine protected areas will mean improved supervision of the seafood industry, making it more difficult for slave labor operators to evade detection.

Earth Law as an innovative supporter of human rights and nature’s rights at sea

Earth Law aims to shift our economic worldview toward one that respects rather than ignores the rights of nature and humans.

Recommendations made by Earth Law Center include, among others:

  • Recognize in law and implement the fundamental rights of nature, including through U.N. General Assembly adoption of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth
  • Prioritize cases before the International Criminal Court that involve co-violations of human rights and nature’s rights
  • Formulate an international treaty to prevent and address human rights and nature’s rights violations by transnational and national business enterprises
  • Provide emergency protection to environmental defenders at risk
  • Adopt a system for receiving information and reporting on violations of the rights of nature and of environmental human rights defenders

Recent efforts in addressing co-violations of human rights and nature’s rights at sea

Local, national and international efforts and partnerships are working to address the growing number of co-violations of ocean and human rights. An Earth Law framework for marine protected areas will build on this momentum.

At the local level, communities are standing up for their right to a healthy environment and to defend the ocean. Communities and states are doing their part to address the flow of plastics into the ocean, with actions such as banning plastic bags, polystyrene and micro-beads.

California passed a law in 2013, and Washington in 2011, prohibiting the possession and sale of shark fins within the state.[14] And most recently, communities across the United States have passed resolutions banning oil drilling off their shores, including 33 communities on the Pacific Coast.[15]

At the national level, countries are increasing ocean conservation efforts, through laws designed to manage fisheries, address land-based pollution and protect large areas of jurisdictional waters through marine protected areas.

Iceland, recipient in 2010 of an award for responsible fishery practices, regulates the amount of fish that each fisherman can catch. Scientists re-evaluate these quotas after testing the biomass twice a year, and shut down fisheries if stocks fall.[16]

Countries are using marine protected areas as a tool to address the decline in marine biodiversity and loss of livelihoods. In late 2017, Mexico announced the expansion of Revillagigedo Archipelago National Park, the largest marine protected area in North America, protecting an area of ocean nearly four times the size of Switzerland.[17] Given the strictest level of protection in the country, the status prohibits fishing activities, mining, and oil extraction, and strictly regulates marine tourism activities.[18] 

At the international level, the United Nations attempted to prevent such violations through the Convention on the Law of The Sea (UNCLOS 1982), also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST). UNCLOS is the primary international agreement that regulates the rights and responsibilities of nations regarding their use and treatment of the world’s oceans.  The treaty that resulted from the convention attempts to create guidelines for all aspects of international waters, including business, diplomacy, mineral rights, pollution control, and fishing rights. However, this treaty, not ratified by the United States, is not in its essence an environmental treaty, but rather a constitution for how all activities should be carried out on the High Seas.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously agreed to launch a series of negotiations to develop an international treaty to protect marine biodiversity on the High Seas (areas beyond national jurisdiction- beyond 200 nautical miles from land). The fourth and final Preparatory meeting was held in 2017, with formal negotiations to begin in fall 2018.[19]

The draft primary objective of the new treaty is to “ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.” The treaty is expected to provide guidelines for cooperation to create regulations to protect marine biodiversity, including designating and implementing marine protected areas on the high seas.

A new approach for human and ocean rights management is needed

Despite the great steps taken to address the co-violations of human and ocean rights, ocean health continues to decline. To correct the destruction being caused, we must challenge the overarching legal and economic systems that reward environmental harm, and advance governance systems that maximize social and ecological well-being.

Earth Law Center proposes evolving the legal framework guiding our activities to include legal rights for the ocean. We have drafted the Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas to serve as a tool for adopting a holistic and rights-based approach to ocean governance. The framework is currently being finalized with a working group under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Experts, governments and organizations worldwide agree that such a shift to holism and alternative forms of management is needed.

For example:

• In 1982, the United Nations adopted the World Charter for Nature (111 votes for, 1 vote against, 18 abstentions).[20] The Charter adopts principles of conservation guiding human conduct to be reflected in the laws of each State.[21] It acknowledges that “mankind is a part of nature” and that “living in harmony with nature gives man the best opportunities” for living well. Noting that “every life form … warrant[s] respect regardless of its worth to man,” the charter declares, “Nature shall be respected and its essential processes shall not be impaired.” The Charter calls upon a moral code of conduct to guide human action in a way that treats other organisms with respect. Additionally, a primary function of the agreement is to recognize that man’s needs can only be met “by ensuring the proper functioning of natural systems.”

• The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) calls upon the recognition of ecological interconnectedness and complexity as crucial to managing marine ecosystems.[22] Also found to be crucial to sustainable management, the need for holism is highlighted throughout NOAA’s work. In multiple reports, NOAA noted that a holistic approach is distinct from current approaches,[23] and to achieve the needed holism, we must reject and replace “many (but not all) of the processes upon which conventional management depends.”[24]

• In providing technical guidelines for responsible fisheries, the international Food and Agriculture Organization recognizes the need to improve current fisheries management,[25] highlighting the use of marine protected areas and a holistic approach to do so.[26] However, FAO notes that marine protected areas must merge two converging paradigms —ecosystem management and fisheries management.[27] Sustainable development can be achieved if the two “converge towards a more holistic approach that balances both human well-being and ecological well-being.”[28]

Accordingly, the Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas, serves as not only as a guideline for adopting holistic and rights-based governance towards protected areas, but also ocean law and policy in general. At its foundation is the recognition and respect for the rights and values of the ocean. By acknowledging certain rights the ocean is entitled to, human decisions are then required to balance human rights and needs with those of the ocean, addressing co-violations of human and ocean rights.

After months of research and writing in 2017, the framework underwent an open call for inputs to gain recommendations from experts internationally. The final version of the framework is due to launch this Earth Day, April 22nd. ELC will also be creating a working group within the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the largest conservation organization in the world, to receive final revisions necessary for IUCN endorsement and dissemination.

What you can do to help

At this critical juncture in our planet’s future, we have the opportunity to change the way we treat the ocean.

  • We can ensure national ocean policies recognize the ocean’s rights to life, well-being, biodiversity and restoration. Read the framework here.
  • We can pass local ordinances establishing the rights of coastal communities to a healthy environment and to defend nature. Launch an initiative here.
  • We can ensure fishery management is done on a systems and precautionary basis. Volunteer with ELC here.
  • And we can encourage our representatives to promote rights of nature in the UN International Treaty for Biodiversity on the High Seas. Donate here.




[4]    Sea Technology


[6] Ransom A. Myers & Boris Worm, “Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities,” 423 Nature 280-283 (May 15, 2003), at:



[9] Russell McLendon, “10 of the Most Endangered Whales on Earth,” Mother Nature Network (June 23, 2010), at:

[10] World Wildlife Fund, “Fast Facts: Why Coral Reefs are Important to People,” at: our_earth/blue_planet/coasts/coral_reefs/coral_facts.

[11] A.D. Rogers, & D.d’A Laffoley, International Earth System Expert Workshop on Ocean Stresses and Impacts, Summary Report, p. 7 (IPSO Oxford 2011), at: See also International Programme on the State of the Ocean, Combined Research Papers, at: wp-content/uploads/2015/10/2011-Summary-report_workshop-on-stresses-and-impacts.pdf.









[20] Tim Boucher, Plants & Privacy, Medium, Feb. 4, 2016, available at:

[21] World Charter for Nature, U.N. Doc. A/37/51 (1982), available at: (World Charter). 

[22] Id. at 2.

[23] Charles W. Fowler, Andrea Belgrano, and Michele Casini, Holistic Fisheries Management: Combining Macroecology, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology, Marine Fisheries Review (Scientific Publications Office, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA), 75 (1–2), 2013, p. 1, available at:

[24] Fowler, C. W., R. D. Redekopp, V. Vissar, and J. Oppenheimer, Pattern-based control rules for fisheries management. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS-AFSC-268, 2014, p. 2, available at:

[25] Fisheries Management-2. The Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2003, available at:

[26] Fisheries management. 4. Marine protected areas and fisheries. FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries. No. 4, Suppl. 4. Rome, FAO, 2011, available at:

[27] Fisheries Management-2. The Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2003, available at:

[28] Id.