A personal reflection by the IOI Honorary President

The International Ocean Institute: A legacy of its founder Elisabeth Mann Borgese


The International Ocean Institute (IOI) was founded by Elisabeth Mann Borgese, the most remarkable woman of our time – a woman of many attributes, mother of the ocean, whose love for the ocean was only surpassed by her commitment to peace and the welfare of humankind.  She abhorred human conflict because she believed in the possibilities of a fair, equitable and just international regime, based on the principles of multilateral cooperation under the auspices of the United Nations, an institution she so much admired and yet with which she never failed to express her frustration, as evidenced in the protracted UNCLOS negotiations.


Elisabeth saw in UNCLOS a laboratory for the incubation of a new world order where Pacem in Maribus could be fused with Pacem in Terris.  Her perceptive vision of a fair and just world order was the driving force behind her embracing of Agenda 21 at the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, and later the UN Secretary-General’s Agenda for Peace.  In each of these events she perceived the linkages between common heritage, sustainable development and peace as the essential components of – and enduring humanistic paradigm for – our purpose on this blue planet.


In my humble opinion, the most enduring and endearing legacy of Elisabeth, the philosopher, the professor, the antagonist and the protagonist, is the International Ocean Institute.  The IOI with its several metamorphoses, with its small headquarters in Malta and a network of collaborative operational centres in 24 countries, was the concept of a genius.


The IOI is the legacy of a "lasting mission and an evolving vision", whose story was written when Elisabeth was still at its helm.  When the heavy mantle was passed to me as the President of IOI in 2002, I was all too aware that no person could ever replace her but we, the collective family of IOI who accepted the challenge, have seen to it that her legacy endures.  In any case, we were certain that IOI was Elisabeth's own song and was destined to be heard by successive generations.


IOI’s metamorphosis began with Elisabeth still at its helm, triggered by Arvid Pardo’s declaration at the UN General Assembly where he so courageously stated that the high seas were the common heritage of humankind, a principle Elisabeth so completely took to heart.  In 1970, when still at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in the USA and at the invitation of the Government of Malta, she convened a conference in Malta for the purpose of drafting a constitution for the oceans and called that conference Pacem in Maribus.  She brought together the best and brightest minds at Pacem in Maribus: oceanographers, scientists, environmentalists, diplomats, lawyers and industrialists.


In her own words, Elisabeth in 1970 brought together “people of goodwill” who realized that the forum was much needed to influence change in intergovernmental and international negotiations and deliberations at UNCLOS.  Pacem in Maribus II followed in 1971.  Elisabeth soon realized that the conference needed the support and assistance of an organised nature; hence the IOI was born in 1972.  That year, Elisabeth addressed the Marine Revolution as one of those “great disjunctures that have marked human history”, describing it as a revolution in international relations, but she warned that there were already many ominous signs that it could turn out to be predominantly destructive.  However, she would then demonstrate her great potential for pragmatism in her stated belief that "Luddism did not work on land and it will not work under water".[2]  She believed that the realistic alternative was to harness and rationally direct the forces of the Marine Revolution, minimizing its destructive side effects.  She demonstrated that, as she strove to include in UNCLOS negotiations the ethical dimension as expressed in the common heritage principle.  As a pragmatist, she fully understood the limits of political concessions.  She settled for less, in the belief that processes were better than deadlocks.


Forty years later, her legacy endures in IOI. Through the IOI, Elisabeth's mission remains engrained in those principles of social justice that gave rise to the constitution of the ocean and the common heritage of mankind.  Today we face very similar challenges from the knowledge and scientific revolution that have resulted in unethical and destructive access to ocean resources and services, from the deepest seabed to the highest sea mounts.  IOI is a pragmatic institution devoted to pursuing a "blue economy" whose core tenet is living with and from the ocean in a sustainable relationship.  Today we face new and emerging challenges ranging from climate change to destructive human practices in the ocean, from food security to global financial meltdowns that have proverbially taken us "back to the future".


In the Nexus Lecture, Elisabeth quoted T S Eliot:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future.

And time future contained in time past.


That is why IOI is a living legacy of the prophetic founder who left us ten years ago.  As a knowledge-based institution that advances its founder’s mission with numerous alumni, the IOI is comfortable with its real calling, namely capacity-building embedded in a moral and ethical dimension of good ocean governance. IOI has structured that calling in a framework of advocacy, partnership and a worldwide network of 23 Operational Centres engaged in economic, social and scientific research and projects for the sustainable relationship of humans living with and from the ocean.  The institute has tripled its training capacity over the last ten years, including the recent establishment of the Regional Operational Centre in China for training in the Western Pacific. 


The IOI will commemorate the tenth anniversary of Elisabeth's passing by launching with the University of Malta in 2012 the first Masters Degree in Ocean Governance, and by establishing the EMB Exhibition and Learning Centre.  IOI will continue to do justice, by all means possible, to Elisabeth’s mission and passion and her love of the ocean.  IOI is at the very centre of that mission to assist, in particular, developing countries and countries in transition to better manage their ocean resources and services for a sustainable future.


Thus IOI remains committed to a vision of globally integrated and fair international ocean policy and governance, anchored in the principle of UNCLOS and the emerging imperatives of the Blue Economy – namely the integrated economic, social and environmental aspects of coastal and ocean services.  Ten years beyond Elisabeth, the time has now come to pass the torch to a younger third generation of IOI leaders who may not have known the mortal Elisabeth but who are ordained into her enduring vision, mission and passion.


[1]               See A. Behnam, “Whither IOI?” and “Whither IOI (2)?”, Ocean Yearbook (Vol. 21) and (Vol. 26) Martinus Nijhoff,                               Boston 2007/2011.

[2]               Pacem in Maribus, edited by Elisabeth Mann Borgese, Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, NY, 1979.


Dr Awni Behnam [1]

(Paper submitted at the EMB Exhibition in Germany, June 2012)