Deep sea mining talks - restrictions threat

A Greenpeace poster parodying the ISA as "Irresponsible Seabed Authority"

A Greenpeace poster parodying the ISA in March which it asked to be taken down
The authority in charge of international talks on sea bed mining has published wide-ranging restrictions for campaigners and media, threatening to expel anyone who breaches them from the event.

I think we're going beyond concerns around transparency here, it’s potentially a violation of people's rights to freedom of expression.

Participants at international negotiations on the future of seabed mining are banned from staging protests inside the venue, or using parody and satire to draw attention to their cause, under threat of being ejected from the talks.

Governments at the three-week negotiations will debate proposed rules to govern deep-sea mining. These have been under discussion for several years, but in July 2021, the Pacific island of Nauru, together with mining company The Metals Company’s subsidiary Nauru Ocean Resources, pushed the timescale forward.

They invoked a rule requiring the International Seabed Authority (ISA) - which is responsible for managing all mineral-resources-related activities beyond national jurisdictions - to establish the regulations within two years. 


If member states fail to do so, the ISA will be forced to consider applications for mining without any regulations. 

Deep sea bed mining is hotly opposed by environmentalists and scientists on the grounds that the huge machines that will be used will cause direct destruction of wildlife habitat and the carbon storage potential of the seabed, and cause noise, light and sediment pollution. 

The mining industry says that the minerals found on the seabed – which include cobalt, nickel, and lithium – are needed for the technologies such as solar panels and batteries. 

But there has recently been significant investment in land-based mining projects for these materials, according to a report published in July by the International Energy Agency. If all these projects are taken forward, supply could be sufficient to support the national climate pledges announced by governments, the agency believes. 

Several governments, including mostly recently Switzerland and Canada, have backed the call for a moratorium or ban on deep sea mining. Private companies such as BMW, Volkswagen and Samsung, and representatives of the international seafood industry, have also urged caution. 


But participants at the talks including campaign groups and the media are concerned that the ISA, which is managing the talks currently underway in Jamaica, is moving to quash any criticism of its actions. 

A seven-page document published on the ISA’s website lists the rules all participants must adhere to while at the talks. These include “activities unrelated to the mandate of the authority or its programmed activities” including “non-authorised actions, demonstrations or protests and other political acts”. 

I think we're going beyond concerns around transparency here, it’s potentially a violation of people's rights to freedom of expression.

Peaceful public demonstrations are to be allowed at an off-site venue, to be managed by Jamaican authorities, it states. It is unclear whether such a space has been set up.

Only documents approved by the ISA can be distributed inside the venue, and only its staff are allowed to hand such materials out. 


The use of the name, emblem or logo of the ISA at the talks in a way the authority deems “wrongful” is also a breach of the new rules. At the last ISA talks in March, the authority asked Greenpeace to immediately remove a campaign poster displayed outside the venue which called it the “Irresponsible Seabed Authority”.

Meanwhile, the media is not allowed to use “impersonated objects” such as satirical drawings of delegates, heads of state or other individuals. Journalists and camera or sound technicians must not take part in “derisory activity or criticism” directed at the ISA, member states, the secretariat, authorities of the Jamaican government, “or any individual that would go against basic rules of decorum”. 

Audio or visual recordings of both open and closed official meetings are also prohibited. The ISA’s reasoning is that all its meetings are webcast, and recordings are available. 

Recordings by participants inside the meeting rooms during breaks must be pre-approved by the ISA’s press office, while recordings at side events require prior approval by both the press office and the event organiser. 

Refusal to comply with any of the rules “may result in removal from or denial of access” to the venue, the ISA states. 


According to the document, the rules are to “ensure the effective functioning and management of all conferences and events of the International Seabed Authority without interference of any kind and to create a work environment that is safe, professional and of mutual trust”.

It also states that the number of participants at ISA meetings has also “substantially increased”, resulting in increased need to manage them, in order that they “achieve their objectives”. 

“There's been a lot of discussions within civil society organisations at the negotiations, wondering what's possible and what's not. The risk of debadging or removing accreditation would come at a very heavy price, particularly for a lot of people who have travelled a really long way to go to these negotiations,” said Louisa Casson, global project lead Greenpeace.

She called the rules “draconian”, particularly those that go beyond conduct in the actual meeting, but prohibited criticism and even parody, she said. “Humour is a useful way to try and communicate what's going on in these quite obscure negotiations,” she said. 

Language used by the ISA in the document is also subject to interpretation, Casson also pointed out. “Who decides what ‘wrongful use’ means, what criteria are there? On what grounds are they judging criticism as a whole to be not allowed, when the freedom of expression is a fundamental right, that should be upheld, particularly by international organisations that are affiliated with the UN,” she said. 

The ISA had not widely communicated its rules to attendees of the negotiations, Casson added. “We’re finding that even some governments are quite concerned about these regulations, they don't feel like they were consulted,” she said. 


The ISA has been criticised in the past over its lack of transparency and access to public participation. A 2022 study concluded that the authority “overlooked” its obligations to human rights law when it came to public participation and lacked transparency. 

Elisa Morgera, professor of Global Environmental Law at the University of Strathclyde and co-author of the paper, said that generally, civil society participation at the ISA was “very difficult” and “unusually controversial” and the way in which the body treated environmental and human rights defenders was “bordering on stigmatisation and harassment”. 

Pointing to a statement in the regulations that claim they are in line with best practice of the UN and other intergovernmental organisations, she said: “They are certainly are not in line with any UN process I'm familiar with.”

“There’s a lot of powers allocated to security staff, but with no clear indication of how they will exercise them or even any kind of indication of justifying action,” she said. 

“One of the key points raised in international law with respect to human rights defenders is that often it is when they are confronted with security officers that their rights are violated.”


Security officers should be trained to recognise and respect the rights to freedom of expression of everyone, but particularly those of environmental human rights defenders,” she said.

People working for NGOs currently at the talks are confused by the rules, Morgera said. “They are very unclear about if there is any way for them to share their knowledge and participate in the process that will be acceptable,” she reported. 

“I think we're going beyond concerns around transparency here, it’s potentially a violation of people's rights to freedom of expression,” she said.

Member states of the ISA have obligations to respect human rights based on treaties they are party to, so should not turn a blind eye to behaviour that restricts the right to freedom of expression, she added. 

The ISA did not respond to a request for comment, nor to clarify details of the arrangements for off-site protests. 


Negotiations at the ISA will continue till 28 July. Campaigners are not expecting regulations on deep sea mining to be finalised by the end of the talks. 

“The regulations so far are 100 pages of bracketed text, there’s so much not done," said Bobbi-Jo Dobush, legal officer at US-based community foundation the Ocean Foundation. 

"Member states of the ISA have been working on this for decades - conceptually, delegates don’t even agree on the big points. We’re really really far from regulations,” 

However, for the first time in the ISA’s history, it will also discuss a proposal for a long-term suspension of deep sea mining. 

Several countries including Chile, Costa Rica, Palau and Vanuatu put forward the suggestion, which highlights that governments have an obligation to protect the marine environment from harm caused by deep sea mining, and that government decisions at the ISA must uphold, not undermine, their international climate and biodiversity commitments and the precautionary principle.

Campaigners are not necessarily expecting the proposal to be adopted this year, Casson said. “But it will help show us which governments are able to back something strong, and which still feel uncertain or undecided. 

“It’s a good litmus test for where the debate is right now, that there are a number of governments who are wanting to use the ISA to actually put the brakes on this industry, rather than to see it accelerate,” she said.

This Author

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for The Ecologist. She tweets at @Cat_Early76.

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