Tue | Apr 23, 2019

Editorial | Jamaica must celebrate role in ISA

Published:Tuesday | March 19, 2019 | 12:17 AM

The Government’s announcement earlier this month that it had given its blessing to a Kingston-registered company, Blue Minerals Jamaica, to seek a licence from the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to explore for polymetallic nodules on the deep seabed largely passed unnoticed.

That is unfortunate. For not only is this of potential major economic and technological significance, but it serves as a reminder of a major global diplomatic breakthrough in which this country had a significant role and in which it will be a key player in perpetuity.

This year November marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), whose secretariat is at the Jamaica Conference Centre, downtown Kingston.

Each year, in February-March, hundreds of diplomats representing scores of countries as well as institutions and firms with interest in deep seabed mining, come to Jamaica for ISA’s annual assembly. This year’s first session has already taken place without, unfortunately, major fanfare.

While we are not aware of what else may be on the agenda of the ISA, this newspaper believes that it is not too late and that the Jamaican authorities ought to make a big deal of the occasion.

The ISA, in essence, is the implementation arm of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, the 1982 agreement that sets the obligations and responsibilities of nations in exploiting the resources of the world’s nations on the principle that they are the common heritage of mankind.

Perhaps the most critical role of the ISA is to ensure the orderly, and sustainable, mining, when that begins to happen, of the 54 per cent of the seabed, ocean, and subsoil that falls outside the exclusive economic zones of states.

The deep oceans are man’s last frontier on the planet, known to contain many of the resources, including minerals, required to sustain his existence, but in short supply, or depleted on land. Minerals such as manganese, nickel, copper, zinc, titanium, and lithium are known to collect in nodules on the ocean floor that companies like Blue Minerals want to collect.

Technologies are being developed for their mining, but the ISA is still structuring regulations for this exploitation aimed at preventing a deep seabed free-for-all and ensuring that the process is sustainable.

It is in that context that after a quarter century, the ISA has only approved licences for exploration, rather than mining, and that firms seeking approvals, like Blue Minerals, which wants a permit to prospect 75,000 square kilometres in the Pacific, need country sponsors.

SPECIALISED SEABED MINING AUTHORITY

ISA has, so far, approved only 29 exploration licences, involving 22 countries. Success by a Jamaica-domiciled entity would place the island among a handful of countries that have plunged into this new frontier, assuming that the authorities were rigorous in their due diligence to ensure Blue Mineral’s ability to deliver on its undertaking.

Given this development, it would be useful if the Government established a specialised seabed mining authority as distinct from the land-mining agency, with the appropriate technical staff to provide robust oversight to entities like Blue Minerals and those who may not want to explore the vast expanses of oceans over which the ISA has jurisdiction, but within Jamaica’s EEZ.

With regard to the celebration of the ISA’s 25th anniversary, it is important that Jamaica embraces this history and the critical role it played in the establishment of the Law of the Sea Convention and the formation of this body, starting in the 1970s when Jamaica’s then ambassador to the UN, Don Mills, was an influential voice in the deliberations of the convention.

In the early 1980s, during the concluding years of the negotiations of the Law of the Sea, and the early grind towards creating the ISA, many of the formulations happened in Kingston at the Conference Centre, where Jamaica offered diplomatic and intellectual leadership.

Jamaica’s then attorney general, the late Carl Rattray, as head of the island’s delegation, was often at the centre of events, in alliance with towering figures such as Singapore’s Tommy Koh, who, as president of the Law of the Sea Convention, presided over its final creation; Paul Engo of Cameroon; Joe Warioba of the Tanzania; and Lennox Ballah of Trinidad and Tobago.