Most of the world's trade is by sea, but this has not made it any easier to achieve safer and environmentally friendly shipping, or good labour standards for all seafarers. The sheer number of ships on the ocean, the diversity in seafarers and ship owners, and 'seablindness', complicate and marginalise these matters when it comes to policy making and public interest.
Alongside the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal to conserve and use the oceans and marine resources for development, new rules for shipping safety are taking an increasingly environmental focus. For example the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) earlier this year finally agreed on how to halve harmful ship greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Taking better care of our environment may sound like a truism, but in some cases this is difficult to do. Ships traverse areas in which there is no state or higher authority and no one can claim sovereignty - the High Seas or, rather, Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, make up 58% of the ocean space.
Most states claim an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles from their coastlines, giving them economic rights to resources in the zone, as well as limited jurisdiction as laid out in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The area beyond this (the High Seas) is not under the sovereignty of any one state. On board a ship the flag state's laws apply, but overboard, all around and underneath is, effectively, anarchy.
Ships traverse areas where there is no state or higher authority and no one can claim sovereignty
Until now that is. Diplomats and scientists met at UN headquarters in New York in September 2018 for the first of a series of negotiations. These should, over the next two years, result in a new treaty to protect this ungoverned and largely ungovernable area from exploitation.
The timing of the negotiations is determined by a number of factors. The landmark broadcast of Sir David Attenborough's Blue Planet II generated a wave of public interest in the state of the oceans that has reached policy makers. The impact of the plastic 'revolution' on the seas is better understood than ever, and the evidence of its collection in ocean gyres, and in the stomachs of dead sea and bird life, is leading to long overdue action.
Another major driver is the exploitation of marine and seabed resources such as metals, minerals and oil in the High Seas. States and economic actors have a growing interest in benefiting from resources in their exclusive economic zone.
Resources located in the seabed of the High Seas are known as the Common Heritage of Mankind. This means that no one can or should exploit them until such time as we can agree on how to mutually benefit from this common resource.
The free-for-all on the High Seas has harmed and depleted fishing stocks everywhere
The same cannot be said for fisheries. This has led to what is termed the Tragedy of the Commons - without an authority to determine and control sustainable usage, there has been a free-for-all that has harmed and depleted fishing stocks everywhere. That it has taken so long to reach this point of seriously discussing responsible management, conservation and protection highlights the scale of the challenge.
This is a matter for all but especially for African countries, whose influence has been relatively limited. The issues currently being discussed are also not simply the concern of coastal states alone - being landlocked is no barrier to pursuing maritime interests.
For instance Ethiopia's defence minister recently announced that the country intends to recreate a naval branch of its armed forces. Other landlocked countries are also aware of their maritime interests, such as Zambia, which joined the IMO in 2015.
World Maritime Day, which takes place tomorrow, 27 September, offers an annual opportunity to critically reflect on global progress and challenges. Whether it be new laws or raising awareness of threats to maritime security, it helps us all appreciate the inherent maritime nature of our societies, economies and the planet itself.
This year's theme is IMO 70: Our Heritage - Better Shipping for a Better Future. For 70 years the IMO, the UN's specialised maritime agency, has been responsible for creating and implementing a raft of maritime laws. But the IMO's role in creating safer shipping and improved navigation must be assessed against the backdrop of the high-level meetings currently taking place. These meetings will determine the future governance and health of our seas and oceans.
World Maritime Day highlights the inherent maritime nature of our societies, economies and the planet
South Africa recently announced it would host the IMO Assembly and the World Maritime Day parallel event in 2020. The parallel event is among the highest profile international maritime meetings, bringing together senior officials from around the world to discuss the theme of the year.
While 2020's theme has not yet been announced, it should build on 2019's 'Empowering Women in the Maritime Community'. Together with empowering African countries and organisations to implement maritime strategies and end African maritime marginalisation, this will make a great contribution.
World Maritime Day is not just a celebration. It is an opportunity to redress power imbalances in the governance of the seas and oceans concerning gender, coastal and landlocked states, and between Africa and the rest of the world.
Timothy Walker, Senior Researcher, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria