Segura (third from left) at the Canadian Ice Core Archive in Edmonton, AB. Segura (third from left) at the Canadian Ice Core Archive in Edmonton, AB.

We know the oceans need protecting from the worst of human overexploitation.

But how, exactly, should the global community attempt to govern such seemingly ungovernable areas as the high seas? Or, for that matter, waters claimed by numerous nations for very different purposes? While we’re thinking about it, how can individual countries ensure the needs of oceans are represented in the halls of global power, like the United Nations’ building in New York?

France has taken a unique approach to speaking for the world’s oceans in appointing Serge Segura as Ambassador for the Ocean. A career diplomat since joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1980, Segura studied law at the Faculty of Aix en Provence and political science at Sciences Po Paris before taking up various embassy posts in Angola, Spain, Albania, Slovenia, Madagascar and Sweden.

Later, working within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ legal department, he specialized in international law of the sea and polar law. In September 2015, Segura began his latest post as the Ambassador in charge of the Oceans.

Recently, A\J editor-in-chief Andrew Reeves spoke with Segura from his hotel in Vancouver, BC, where he had arrived after presenting on ocean health in Edmonton, Alberta.

Alternatives Journal: I see you've been in Vancouver and Edmonton talking about the oceans recently. I understand Vancouver, but why were you in Edmonton?

Serge Segura: I was invited by the French consulate in Vancouver and Edmonton because they have an operation called FACT-O, a collaboration between our two embassies in Canada and in  the United States. It is a program that began just before COP21 in Paris in 2015, and the idea was to have seminars with American and Canadian scientists and universities about climate change in order to prepare for COP21. 

After COP21, we decided to add a new subject to these seminars about the relationship between climate change and the ocean and ocean pollution. They organized this FACT-O at the University of Edmonton and they invited me to participate and talk on the new diplomacy of the oceans, especially the Arctic Ocean. And then coming to Vancouver, we thought it was a good idea present with the University of British Columbia as well.

A\J: How long have you been in your role as France’s Ambassador to the Oceans?

Segura: It's a new job. The post was created three years ago, just before COP21 in Paris. I am in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; I'm a diplomat and have been a diplomat for more than 35 years. And our minister at that time, Mr. Laurent Fabius, thought it was necessary to try a very new approach to questions related to oceans. Because in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in other ministries in France, we were dealing more technically with the ocean. So the idea was to have this kind of post.

As Oceans Ambassador, I'm a sort of free man inside the ministry who shows my colleagues, other French diplomats, that we have to organize our work on the ocean in a different way and not in a vertical way. It has been too vertical until now, without communication between departments whose work touches on the health of the oceans. It's important to have a more collaborative vision of the oceans. And this is what I try to bring in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to other ministries in Paris.

A\J: Can you explain what you mean by France’s approach to the oceans being 'too vertical?' How would it be more horizontal?

Segura: We have our organization within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I think it's the same kind of organization in many parts of the world, that has legal ways of dealing with oceans issues via the law of the sea. But while other agencies need to have some knowledge of the law of the sea, they need to communicate better among themselves.

And there is also what we call the ‘political departments’ – geographical departments, really, focused on Asia, Europe or the Americas. And when they speak about the ocean, they speak generally about crises, like in the South China Sea, for example. Many don't realize that it's important to have a broad view of what the origins and consequences are of various ocean crises, including economic issues and environmental consequences.

Thinking of the oceans solely as a legal problem will result in only a traditional geostrategic view, and my colleagues are very conscious of that. And when I present them new approaches or ways of thinking about the oceans, they are generally very easy to convince that a broader approach is better.

A\J: Have other countries followed France’s lead in creating a similar position? Or do you often stand alone?

Segura: Many countries now are taking the same approach, but that doesn't mean they will each create the same post of Ambassador in charge of the ocean. But what I’m saying is there’s a necessity for whoever is responsible for overseeing the ocean with the international community to take a much wider approach.

With Canada, we are beginning to negotiate a new treaty at the United Nations about ocean protection and sustainable use of biodiversity since September. And it’s clear that delegations from many countries have seen the need to have people from different origins – scientists, economists, private sector workers, lawyers and diplomats, of course. It all shows very well a growing recognition to have a broad and wide approach of the ocean nowadays.

Segura (centre) at a meeting with UBC with Yves Tiberghien (third from left), Director Emeritus of UBC's Institute of Asian Research. 

A\J: Are there are joint projects related to the oceans that Canada and France are jointly working on?

Segura: There is something interesting happening between our two countries. Canada chaired the G7 meeting this year in Charlevoix, Quebec, and next year it will be France. Canada has created a very good initiative in putting oceans on the G7 agenda, and we in France have begun to work with our Canadian colleagues to ensure a continuity between our two presidencies on the subject of the ocean.

A\J: What are some of the common issues related to ocean health that you’re seeing on the horizon, or even happening today?

Segura: Many people are now talking about plastic pollution, and they’re right in doing so. There are many initiatives already underway or could be taken, but we have to turn our initiatives into ideas and have government work with the private sector and international organizations. The European Union, for example, is very active on plastic pollution, and it's important not to put the EU to the side. We need a strong European Union to work with us on this and some United Nations’ organizations like the the UN Environmental Program to get more engaged as well.

Our work on the ocean has been too vertical until now, without communication between departments whose work touches on the health of the oceans. 

But there’s also a need to address the relationship between climate change and the oceans. That issue is dealt with more in international climate forums more than ocean forums despite the fact that scientists have proved to us the deep inter-relationship between climate change and oceans. We know perfectly well what the consequences will be the if we don't act.

So there are some countries, France as well as Canada, who have shown a real will to act. But this question should not limit the approach to the health of the oceans and ability to withstand the impacts of climate change. The health of the ocean and the health of the biodiversity in the ocean must not be overlooked by the dangers posed by climate change

A\J: What is some of the biggest priority areas you've come to the position with or that you've undertaken since you became France's Ambassador to the oceans?

Segura: There are many priorities. For me, the priority is to have a successful negotiation at the UN in New York on a new treaty to deal with conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the high seas. The high seas are, as you know, a very remote region. It's the water column and the soil and subsoil of the ocean more than 380 kilometers from shore. It’s so far from the coast and that people public opinion are not very much aware about what is happening there, be it the impacts of climate change on open oceans or the ecological implications of different economic activities.

It's important to regulate the high seas so that the environment won’t be a victim of overexploitation. So we began to negotiate a new treaty in the UN General Assembly last September. And this is really my priority now.

A\J: Is there one major struggle over the future of the oceans we should all be aware of?

Segura: Humanity is increasing very quickly, and in the coming decades it will grow further. We will need the resources of the ocean to survive. Fishing activities will go on, fortunately, but we have to make everything in a sustainable way. We have entered a new phase of making an economy in and under the ocean, but it should be – it has to be – undertaken with a sustainable philosophy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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