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Deep Seabed Mining & International Law: Is a Precautionary Pause Required?

On May 31, 2023, the British Institute of International and Comparative Law (BIICL) organized a webinar titled 'Deep Seabed Mining & International Law: Is a Precautionary Pause Required?'.

Deep-sea mining in the world's global commons has become a topic of intense international debate, with a growing call for a moratorium or a precautionary pause until the environmental risks are better understood. Governments, NGOs, and companies are all weighing in on this issue, which has significant potential implications for the future of our planet. Some argue that a precautionary pause is needed until the gaps in scientific knowledge are filled and the International Seabed Authority's institutional capacity is addressed. Others believe that timely exploitation of metals such as copper, cobalt, nickel, manganese, and rare earths for electric cables and lithium-ion batteries can help facilitate low-carbon energy transition.

Despite the International Seabed Authority granting licenses for companies and states to explore the deep seabed in accordance with Part XI of UNCLOS, full-scale mining has not yet started. There is significant opposition amongst ISA Council States to DSM beginning soon, thus the Council will likely seek to prevent approval of an application before RRPs are ready. The Pacific small island nation of Nauru has already triggered the "two-year rule", which requires the International Seabed Authority to complete the adoption of its rules, regulations, and procedures for mineral exploitation by July 2023. Meanwhile, other island nations like Samoa, Fiji, and Palau, alongside Chile, France, Germany, New Zealand and others, are advocating for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.

This event discussed the legal, environmental and social implications of deep-sea mining in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Should states and companies prioritise precautionary measures before engaging in commercial exploitation of the deep seabed? What specific precautionary measures should be implemented in this regard? If a precautionary pause is deemed necessary, what additional collaborative measures should member states take, in accordance with UNCLOS, to enhance scientific knowledge and establish a robust framework for responsible exploitation of deep-sea resources?

The event was convened by Dr Constantinos Yiallourides, Research Leader in the Law of the Sea, BIICL; Ingrid Gubbay, Visiting Research Fellow, BIICL; and Dr Jean-Pierre Gauci, Arthur Watts Senior Fellow in Public International Law, BIICL.

This report summarises the conversation and consolidates some key points covered in the webinar held on 31 May 2023. The discussion was chaired by Ingrid Gubbay, European Head of Human Rights and Environmental Law at Hausfeld, Visiting Research Fellow, BIICL. The panel speakers were Toby Fisher, Barrister Matrix Chambers, Former Deputy Director, International Law at New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade; Associate Prof. Dr Aline Jaeckel, Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources & Security, University of Wollongong; and Monica Feria-Tinta, Barrister, Twenty Essex.

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