The Pacific nation that has the world on edge

A small island nation in the Pacific, the Republic of Nauru, holding just over 12,000 inhabitants on its 21 km²of areas, has gained a lot of traction as it notified the International Seabed Authority of the intention of its sponsored entity, Nauru ocean resources inc. (NORI) plans to launch deep sea mining in two years, invoking a two-year rule inserted as a part of UN Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

With this strategically consequential decision, Nauru has punched beyond its weight by influencing and shaping the course of global events despite being a relatively unknown player in international affairs. Nauru’s decision has led to considerable consternation among the legal community, environmentalists, and policymakers. It has sparked debates and concerns and highlighted a critical legal and policy loophole in the international deep sea mining regime. As a member of the ISA for the past 25 years, Nauru got authorization to invoke the “two-year rule” clause of the UNCLOS. The said clause requires the ISA to put in place the governance infrastructure, i.e. the rules, regulations and procedures governing the contours of deep sea mining within the two years. In case of failure, the ISA must at least evaluate the mining proposal by the end of two years.

Nauru’s Viewpoint

By invoking section 1 (15) of the 1994 implementing agreement, Nauru, the world’s smallest republic and the island nation, has triggered what some commentators have called the nuclear option. Nauru’s rationale has been that 80 per cent of its land is uninhabitable owing to colonial-era phosphate mining and that deep sea mining was more sustainable. Supporters have pointed out deep sea mining would have a comparatively less severe impact than mining for battery metals on land. The operation of the aforementioned provision allows ISA two years- in this case until July 2023- to finalize a set of regulations governing deep sea mining under international seabed authority. If the council fails to adopt the rules in this stipulated period and an exploitation application is submitted, it would still be required to consider and provisionally approve it.

The international seabed, considered a part of the common heritage of humankind under the rubric of UNCLOS, has, of late, become a significant area for contestation and a new battleground for control over untapped and unknown resources. Nauru and metals company, formerly known as the Deep green, of which NORI is a wholly owned subsidiary company, have reasoned that deep sea mining is a less environmentally and socially damaging alternative to terrestrial mining and is critical for transitioning to a green and clean economy. The sea floor at a depth of 4-6 km has an abundance of polymetallic nodules from which critical metals such as cobalt, copper, nickel and manganese could be extracted. These are plentiful in the Clarion-Clipperton zone in the north pacific between Hawaii and Mexico. The claim to cut down on the carbon emissions from this pioneering venture which could power the world’s green economy and herald a more sustainable future has been forcefully made by both the government and the company in its defence.

Concerns associated with deep-sea mining

Environmentalists and the legal community dealing with this field have expressed severe concerns about deep sea mining. They have warned of catastrophic and unprecedented impacts of Nauru’s decision and something that could open up the pandora’s box leading to a mad rush for precious resources of the deep sea. Experts have warned that, in all likelihood, Nauru will start exploiting the deep-sea bed without a robust governance mechanism. Nauru’s actions have been described as a retrograde industrial-era approach to resource extraction and destruction of the world.

Concerns about the substantial loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning and the lack of enough scientific knowledge to fully grasp and comprehend the debilitating impacts of deep-sea mining on the marine environment have been pointed out as critical issues. World wildlife fund, in a statement, warned that pushing the regulations through prematurely and without due process or lack of enough scientific knowledge about the deep sea violates the precautionary approach and other principles of international environmental law.

Nauru has gained a lot of traction as it notified the International Seabed Authority of the intention of its sponsored entity, Nauru ocean resources inc. plans to launch deep sea mining in two years. Picture: Unsplash
Nauru has gained a lot of traction as it notified the International Seabed Authority of the intention of its sponsored entity, Nauru ocean resources inc. plans to launch deep sea mining in two years. Picture: Unsplash

Differences within ISA over various issues, including royalty regimes for deep sea minerals, have also been pointed out as crucial concerns by the legal community. Greenpeace has said in its statement that this case will serve as a litmus test for those governments who claim to want to protect the oceans. Even the IUCN, which compiles the red list of endangered species, has called for a global ban on deep-sea mining. Noted oceanographer Sylvia Earle has called this effort of Nauru the biggest land grab in the history of humankind. The immense environmental cost attached to this move has led to many debates and discussions over the idea of deep-sea mining. Goal no. 14 of the UNSDG, which explicitly mentions life below water, is at odds with Nauru’s decision to go ahead with deep-sea mining. In essence, it is an antithesis to the idea of sustainable development, which includes living in harmony with the terrestrial and marine environment.

Loss of pristine marine habitats due to potential leakages and spills of fuels and toxic products, along with the noise pollution caused by mining equipment and surface vessels, could adversely affect and even cause the extinction of species such as whales, sharks and tuna. Plumes of suspended particles could be created caused by stirring up fine sediments on the ocean floor, which could be aggravated by mining ships discharging wastewater at the surface. Critics have also pointed toward the fundamental structural issue of the ISA, which biases it toward mining. A 2020 report has highlighted the pivotal issue of untimely and, in some cases, non-commital attitude to pay their due obligations on time which has financially plagued the institution. According to the report, almost 60 countries owe at least two years of contributions. Therefore, a potential for conflict of interests seems to be pretty apparent, given that ISA is expected to get a share of the profits if it gives a green signal to the project.


Thus, it could be said that a crucial move to commence deep sea mining by a tiny nation like Nauru has set the alarm bells ringing for the world community. It has brought to the fore what has until now been considered an unchartered and unexplored territory to the fulcrum of global attention and debates. Exposing a crucial gap in the governance mechanism has instilled a sense of urgency to draft the rules in the face of the scientific community flagging the disastrous impact that rampant and reckless mining could have on the planet.

This article is republished from the Centre for Security and Strategy Studies under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Pratik is a Postgraduate student of Politics With a Specialization In International Studies at the School Of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His area of interest includes analysis of India’s Foreign Policy, particularly concerning its immediate neighbourhood in South Asia and extended neighbourhoods of Central Asia and Southeast Asia and the impact of great power rivalry in shaping India’s foreign policy.

1 Comment
  1. MJ 2 months ago

    Please take a look at the five Chinese bases set up in Antarctica, very quickly and without any consultation or agreements!
    They are building “all season” runways on hard rock and planning to exploit ALL resources there, starting with krill… the building block/food source of so many creatures.

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