The Oceans, Caring for a common heritage, 04.07.17

Conference on “The Oceans, Caring for a common heritage”

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson


Holy Cross University, Rome.

     4th July, 2017


Your Excellency, Mr. Peter Thompson, President of the United Nations General Assembly, Your Excellencies: Members of the Diplomatic Corp, Distinguished Professors, Ladies and Gentlemen:



Let me, to begin, thank heartily the Ambassadors of France, The Netherlands and Monaco for having accepted to jointly plan and hold this conference with the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development. Let me also thank the Rector and Staff of the Holy Cross University for graciously accepting to host this event on their premises. Finally, let me thank you all for generously accepting our invitation to participate in this Conference.

Of late, very many states, such as Indonesia, The Netherlands, Chile and the United States, have held international conferences on the Ocean. Just last June, the UN held a High Level  conference on the Oceans and SDG 14, to which I was privileged to have led a delegation of the Holy See. The thrust of the conference was to Conserve and sustainably use the oceans and marine resources for sustainable development; and it had several related events, including several  partnership dialogues, two of which addressed the issues of “minimizing and addressing ocean acidification, and  Increasing economic benefits to small islands developing States and least developed countries, providing access for small scale artisanal fishers to marine resources and markets.

In October, the European Union also intends to hold a conference in Malta on the oceans. The UNESCO has a line-up of events and activities on the oceans; and a UN working group is eagerly preparing “a  new legally binding instrument to expand the Law of the Sea to regulate the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction”.

Clearly, interest in oceans-related issues are mounting: research work, oceans  acidification, their  under-water wonder-world, fisheries, the so called “blue economy”, their governance, human rights of coastal and Island peoples, illicit trade, piracy, warship patrols, passage ways of migrants, tensions over control of seas and Islands etc.


Caring for a Common Heritage:

My Dear Friends, the preamble of the UN Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) says: The States Parties desire to develop the principles embodied in resolution 2749 (XXV) of 17 December 1970 in which the General Assembly of the United Nations solemnly declared inter alia that the area of the seabed and ocean floor and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, as well as its resources, are the common heritage of mankind. However recently, the Holy See diplomatic staff attending many UN meetings observe that the conceptcommon heritageand the reference to anything in those terms do not enjoy consensus any longer. New documents dealing with oceans, and the process of updating or implementing UNCLOS are not likely to re-use the expression, common heritage. Less still is the likelihood of deepening the sense of common heritage and the implications of its application to elements of our common home.

This is, indeed, regrettable; for the reference to things in terms of common heritage, is a pithy way of expressing the relationship of man to them, and the attitude and his responsibility that man must develop towards them. When we refer to anything as heritage, we recognize that we are not its  author: that it has come to us or been passed on to us. Receiving something we are not responsible evokes within us the attitude and sentiments of gratitude and respect. It has the character of a gift; and having been bequeathed to us, heritage as gift requires that we treat it responsibly.

Additionally, the concept of heritage evokes that of solidarity. In solidarity with the present, the past transmits its heritage. The present that will become a past for another and a new present, needs to recognize that it holds this heritage in trust for the future.  This is heightened by the fact that it is common. What is common  must belong to all. It must be shared among heirs.  No greed is possible. As a common heritage of mankind, then, invite the human family to a noble show of solidarity, to the trustworthiness of holding the present in trust for the future, and, for us all in the present, as administrators and beneficiaries, to care for our common heritage.

When, indeed, the reference to the oceans and their resources ceases to be in terms of common heritage of mankind in the documents and parlance of the UN, the UN will be encouraging an attitudinal change towards these resources. When one loses the sense of gift and of holding something in trust, one yield to a myopic and a voracious exploitation of these resources.  Cf. Experience at the Arctic Circle Conference in Alaska: Indeed, valuable resources are increasingly being discovered, just as new technologies and equipment are being developed which will make the resources accessible and for profit. .. Already now, there is talk about “flammable ice”! So, can we still implement the principle of the “polluter pays”? And will the UN continue to implement the UNCLOS, so that the resources we hold in trust for future generations are not decimated by quotas and exclusive economic zones of investors and developers!

Dear Friends, is it not indeed ironical that in the 70s and 80s, when the Cold War still lingered on, the leaders of Nations found it useful to refer to the oceans and their resources  as common heritage of mankind; and now that we actually live with what Pope Francis has described as “a third world war begun in pieces”, the leaders if Nations back-peddle on considering the oceans and their wealth common heritage of humanity.

A few years before the adoption of the UNCLOS, the Pontifical Commission “Iustitia et Pax” (which would later become the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and now part of the Dicasatery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development) issued a brief document entitled the Universal destination of goods/the goods of the earth. It is principle that is derived from the Biblical accounts about the origins of man and his world; and it is in support of the UN consideration of the resources of the earth (land and sea) as a  “common heritage of mankind.



By way of concluding, let us recognize that the oceans and their resources are not only humanity’s common heritage.  They also call humanity together. In fact, these immense masses of salt water are a call for unity, exchange, wellbeing and fraternal collaboration. It is said that oceans divide continents, but unite people: let’s make this true!



                                                                                         Cardinal Peter Kodwo Turkson

21 junio 2018