Elizabeth Kirk (Nottingham Trent), ‘Mapping International Law to Dynamic Three-Dimensional Ecosystems’ (19 January 2018)

Friday, 19 January 2018, from 2 to 4pm, Language Center (Fabianinkatu 26), seminar room 309.

The world’s marine ecosystems change naturally across both space and time, and in so doing they provide a challenge for law. Law is designed to ensure certainty; as such, it tends to grant rights and entrench agreed ways of behaving, including agreed ways of interacting with ecosystems. The result is that law cannot easily respond to either natural changes in ecosystems or to the impacts of human use of the oceans. This in itself is problematic – it paves the way for overfishing, and for floating islands of plastics and other rubbish. If law is to be fit for the purpose of managing dynamic three-dimensional marine ecosystems, it may have to change. The question then is: how should it change?

Traditionally, international law regulated use of the oceans by dividing them, the uses made of them, and the problems that arise, into sectors. This division of the oceans, largely made on the basis of lines drawn on two-dimensional maps, has given individual states jurisdiction over certain areas of the oceans, with the high seas left for all to use as they wish. Sometimes these individual states come together to form groups, sharing their jurisdiction to address single-issue problems such as overfishing or marine pollution. As often as states cooperate in the management of the marine environment, disputes over its use will arise. The result is a fragmented, or perhaps perforated, system of governance. Although some legal structures and norms exist, there are significant holes in the system.

In this lecture, Elizabeth will contrast this traditional approach of international law to ocean governance with the more holistic approaches now being adopted, such as the ecosystem approach. In doing so, she will explore the gaps and problems that remain in the ability of international law to govern naturally dynamic three-dimensional marine ecosystems that are increasingly affected by human activities.


Professor Elizabeth Kirk is Professor of International Environmental Law at Nottingham Trent University, UK, and Deputy Chair of the Governing Board of the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law and sits on the Managing Board of the European Environmental Law Forum.

Elizabeth’s research highlights weaknesses in current understanding of the production of normativity in both national and international law and provides methods for better understanding these processes. For example, Elizabeth’s research shows that the form of law is less important than the content and that other factors, such as trust and educational activities may be more important, in the production of normativity.

It also changes conceptions of the role of science in both international and national environmental law, demonstrating that the role of science is often less significant than one would anticipate. Instead Elizabeth’s research has led to the insight that the key to normativity (and hence compliance) lies in the role played by a variety of actors in shaping the development of legal norms, through formal participation in decision-making, direct and indirect lobbying, the linking of disparate legal regimes and the creation of new cultural norms, which influence the development of legal norms and the implementation process.

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