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Ownership over the deep seabed and its mineral riches was unsettled until well into the twentieth century. Yet, by the 1960s, a remarkable spirit of universalism prevailed. States declared the deep seabed to be the common heritage of [hu]mankind, determining that its exploitation and protection would require collective management. The seabed beyond national jurisdiction (or, the “Area”) spans roughly half of the surface of the Earth. It contains critical minerals, such as cobalt and copper, which technological advances have rendered increasingly within reach. States have worked collectively and proactively to regulate the near-future exploitation of the deep seas, thus far acting squarely within the law of the sea. As the possibilities of commercial mining appear clearly on the horizon, and as the impacts of mineral extraction come more and more sharply into view, the time has come to reassess whether the (monumental) concept of common heritage—part of the law of the sea—is enough to balance equities among states, mining companies, and human populations affected by mining. Is the current law capable of adequately preserving fairness and equity among all stakeholders in isolation from the legal regimes for human rights, environmental protection, cultural heritage, and the protection of Indigenous peoples and local communities? These regimes emphasize that deep seabed mining is not just an economic pursuit, it is also one that affects the lives and identities of individuals and peoples—and provide legal tools and strategies for harmonizing those interests. Yet established rules and norms around participatory governance and cultural rights have been all but ignored within recent international negotiations about how to regulate seabed mining.

This Unbound Symposium uncovers neglected elements in the legal and political debates. While it is well understood that seabed mining will affect the marine environment, what impact might it have on underwater cultural rights and intangible cultural heritage? Can we expect litigation if our common heritage is not managed with future generations in mind? How can Indigenous peoples’ right to participation and free, prior, informed consent be realized? This introductory essay situates the debate around ownership and extraction in the Area in light of the stakes and stakeholders too often left to the side—particularly those of Indigenous peoples with claims to cultural connections to the Area. These stakes offer context for the different contributions to this symposium, which seek to challenge and advance these debates.


Part of Ownership in the Deep Seas

Copyright © The Author(s) 2024. Published by Cambridge University Press for The American Society of International Law. This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.