by Bruno Costelini
Oceanographer and PhD candidate in Law at Durham University
The 1920s are often hailed as a period of cultural effervescence and budding creativity in the western world. Literary movements sprung, popular and avant-garde cinema was exploding, technological innovations such as the radio completely changed how mass communications worked. And even in the often-slow-moving world of International Law, the creation of the League of Nations represented a change in pace, as it attempted to tackle some of the remaining issues left from the Great War and to establish an order based on multilateral agreements.
One such preoccupation they had happened to be with the oceans. Evidence of the deleterious effect of overfishing had been accumulating for some time, since the creation of the first oceanographic and fisheries institutions in the late 19th century had by then gathered enough evidence to support policies and regulation. Whale hunting in particular was a major such concern, as the major whaling countries that used blubber for oil and soap (Norway and the United Kingdom) had already depleted the North Atlantic and were now moving towards the south, to Antarctic waters.
So, the League appointed a ‘committee of experts’ to look not only into this particular problem but to the overall ‘progressive codification of International Law’, the first such attempt, which ultimately failed, as we now know. The ‘Law of the Sea” section of the committee was headed by Argentine jurist José León Suárez, a proponent of greater scientific and technical rigor to the treatment of those matters.
In his final report in 1927 Suárez made this interesting suggestion that I will quote in full: ‘The richness of the sea, in particular the richness of the Antarctic region, comprise a heritage of humankind, and our Commission, constituted by the League of Nations, is all for proposing to the governments a course of action before it is too late’.
Two things that stand out there. First, this was possibly the first such direct reference to the oceans resources as ‘heritage of humankind’ or ‘heritage of mankind’ as a clear proposal for an International agreement. Though we often refer to Arvid Pardo’s 1967 UN General Assembly speech as the propellant of the institution of CHM (now applied only to seabed mineral resources, and to the Moon, in the Moon Treaty, but not to Antarctica, curiously), Suarez’s proposal was actually the first to appear in a multilateral institution, which evidently did not succeed.
Second, the call for action, ‘before it is too late’, which seems to be a common motif in the international community, seeing as we are always chasing past errors and trying to fix situations that are on the brink of disaster. It should be noted that in that case no action was passed, and the whale problem only resolved itself when stocks reached such a low level that it was no longer profitable to travel across the whole world to hunt them. At that point, however, the invention of new techniques for soap and oil making made the use of blubber no longer essential, and the industry changed production lines to accommodate vegetable sources. (But the whale populations never fully recovered, and it did take decades of moratoriums for them to escape risk of extinction). And the rest is History, as they say.
Cut to a hundred years later, and we are now entering the ‘UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development’, a new roaring twenties perhaps, but with the same old problems, and the same old recipes. This has been hailed as a unique opportunity to gather scientific resources, focus on the great issues (marine pollution, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, pick your battle!) and finally try and solve them with experts and data, and all that the best scientific evidence has to offer, for we seem to be, as usual on the brink of disaster(s).
Will we finally take action before it is too late? Only time will tell. But let us keep our hopes up. If the 1920s brought us the talent of Hemingway, Chaplin, Charleston dancing, and all those wonderful modernists, perhaps our roaring 2020s will makes us dance to the rhythm of science and reason. Why not?
 The Suarez story at the League of Nations is drawn from an unpublished manuscript by Zsofia Korosy presented in a workshop at the University of Technology Sydney in December 2020.
 “Les richesses de la mer, en particulier les richesses immenses de la région antarctique, constituent un patrimoine de l’humanité, et notre Commission, constituée par la Societé des Nations, est tout indiquée pour proposer au Gouvernement un moyen d’action avant qu’il ne soit trop tard.”
Quoted in Scovazzi, Tulio ‘The Concept of Common Heritage of Mankind and the Genetic Resources of the Seabed Beyond the Limits of National Jurisdiction’ Agenda Internacional 15, XXV, 2007.