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Ocean rights would be a challenge: PM

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 13/06/2017 Karen Sweeney

Giving oceans the same legal rights as a person would help raise global awareness of the need to protect them, Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna believes.

He floated the idea at the United Nations Oceans Conference in New York last week and now wants the rest of the world to get on board, raising it again with Prime Minister Bill English in Rarotonga on Tuesday (local time).

The idea is based on New Zealand's acknowledgement of the Whanganui River as a legal person in March.

Expanding that to a global level would be a big step, according to Prime Minister Bill English, who pointed out the Whanganui River decision came about through unique circumstances.

It was part of cultural redress in a Treaty of Waitangi settlement.

To do the same for the ocean, and on a global scale, would be unlikely to happen any time soon, Mr English says.

"I think it's a pretty challenging idea ... it's certainly not feasible now," he said, confirming New Zealand would not pursue the idea.

But he backs what the Cook Islands is setting out to do overall in terms of tackling climate change at a local level.

"If the objective of it is better management of fisheries, keeping the rubbish out of the ocean ... and managing the effects of climate change then we certainly share the objectives," he said.

Mr Puna told reporters it's clear the ocean is being badly polluted and what happens in one part of the world affects the rest.

The Cook Islands is looking for innovative ways to be a world leader in protecting the ocean from that pollution.

"It became clear that maybe by floating this idea of giving the ocean a legal personality so they can have rights, maybe it's one way of drawing the attention of the whole world to the need, very urgent need now, for us to protect the oceans," he said.

Mr Puna was also questioned about US President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.

He said it was clear the US was isolated by the decision.

Mr English agreed that was certainly the feeling within the Pacific.

"The US has gone off in a different direction. It hasn't changed our commitment to it and it hasn't changed the level of anxiety I think that you see in these smaller pacific countries," he said.

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