Hammerhead sharks are without a doubt one of the most interesting groups of friends we have below the surface. Unfortunately, their fins are highly sought after in the shark fin trade and it is estimated that over 2.7 million hammerheads are killed every year for this industry. This extensive decline has led to protections from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and multiple regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), but only about 55 nations currently have a total or partial ban on shark finning within their legislature, so technically, it is still legal to fin sharks in more than 150 countries around the world. Do you want to do something about it? Well, the first step in taking action to protect animals like the hammerhead shark is understanding how the legal system works. In recognizing how history has cast the foundation of contemporary domestic and international politics, we can find ways to use our powerful legal tools (our voices, and each other's support) to make a difference.
Political ideology arose about 12,000 years ago with the Agricultural Revolution and early power distributions were allocated based on land fertility and water availability. With time, concepts such as political obligation, social justice, constitution, and law evolved and philosophers such as Aristotle and Hobbes reshaped the nature of political culture. Bringing an end to two major European wars (the Thirty Years’ War and the Eight Years’ War), the Peace of Westphalia (1648) coincided with the emergence of democracy and gave rise to the Westphalian System- the format of modern statehood based on sovereignty and political self-determination. Although some feudal states predated the treaties, this rift expanded the basic systems of self-governance and monarchy into today’s complex democratic and totalitarian systems, and refined state boundaries from vague frontier-type sketches to distinct modern barriers. Imperialists pressed on throughout the centuries, communism rippled, and the world superpowers danced a bloody mambo like they were having the time of their life… twice. But democracy pressed on as well; as the signing of the Bill of Rights (1689) helped pull absolute power from the monarchy, liberalism spread with the American Declaration of Independence (1776), the rise of nationalism and capitalism uplifted the middle class, and slowly, more states gained independence.
Well, what does it mean to be a “state”? Any recognized legal entity based around the administration of a territory is referred to as a state - not to be confused with the states of the U.S. Today, there are 206 states in the world with varying political cultures (institutions, philosophy, freedom), economic values (industry, services, agriculture), and social standards (education, healthcare). Generally, these elements can be combined to categorize states into six political domains: liberal democracies, communist and post-communist states, new democracies, less-developed states, Islamic states, and marginal states. Within each arena, states still differ to some extent on institutional and social bases but converge on more overarching themes such as economy type and global influence. States circumscribe their political identities through the implementation of policies (strategic decision-making guidelines), which are expressed as laws (societal rules).
Typically, law is administered through a state system consisting of three segments: a political institution makes the laws, a bureaucracy administers the laws, and a judiciary interprets the laws in courts. Within the U.S., the Federal Government employs the three-branch system- legislative, executive, and judicial, whose powers are vested in Congress, the President, and the Federal courts, respectively. Once someone has an idea and proposes a bill in either House of Congress (Representatives or Senate), the bill is reviewed by the appropriate subcommittee, and with the committee’s approval the bill goes to the floor of the House or Senate (depending on its nature); if passed, the cycle is repeated in the other House, and it goes to the President from there. When passed, one or more federal agencies are designated to oversee the implementation of the law, and the judiciary steps in when the parameters of the law are in question and to ensure proper enforcement.
Other liberal democracies, like say Japan or Norway, also have constitutional freedom of expression and fair general elections, but cultural values and public participation in legal matters can differ drastically. These factors, among others, influence environmental conservation decisions and delineate the strength of local public voices. Moreover, since there is no single all-powerful nation, the process is complicated further when looking at an international scale. Domestic and international laws mainly differ in who makes them (legislatures vs. state parties), to whom they apply (persons vs. states), who interprets them (bureaucracies vs. international courts), and diplomacy tools used (sanctions vs. legal punishment). International law is much more flexible than domestic law and draws on sources such as treaties, customary law (accepted norms), conventions, recognized general principles of law, and international court decisions. Compared to domestic law established by a legislative body, international laws can be seen as lacking “teeth”, but are crucial to finding solutions to complex and controversial issues and are becoming unavoidable with the rates of globalization and transnational threats we face today. When it comes to preserving coastal coral reefs or protecting local fish stocks, domestic laws help to ensure that these charters are taken seriously. The world ocean, though, knows not of imaginary boundaries, nor do migratory animals such as the great whales or sea turtles; therefore, many ocean-related issues, such as shipping pollution and species protection, fall into the international category. If we want to see real change, though, we need to know where we fit into all of this.
Say you have an idea that will help your community, see a proposed bill that you think will harm your community, or want to see an existing law or policy amended. The contact information of your local legislators and agency officials is all publicly available and they hold town hall meetings; building projects on public lands and bill proposals have multiple phases of public commenting and hearings (public-participation principle); teaming up with non-governmental organizations and lobbyists can help your legislators see the need for change; a lawsuit could be filed to address pressing matters directly; and you can request any information from a federal agency (unless it falls under exemptions such as national security or law enforcement) under the Freedom of Information Act. While some other nations have similar systems, the big leagues are still a bit trickier to get into.
So how would you go about ending the global shark finning trade? Using those same steps above are a great start, but you will have to be a strong force - tirelessly pitching your initiative to local legislators and community constituents, then pushing for nationwide support, and multinational coalitions from there. Teaming up with environmental groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and international governmental organizations (IGOs) can be extremely helpful here, and finding like-minded passionate humans can help spark peaceful movements when necessary. Contact your national Bar Association for expert help or go straight to contacting the United Nations, their information is publicly available too. What I am trying to say is, if you are going to help tackle big problems, you will need to know how to make big waves. Most importantly, we need to remember that equitable solutions are possible without imposing our cultures on others and we mustn't give up hope on being a voice for the world below the surface and the incredible marine animals that (figuratively) have no voice of their own.