Dr Surabhi Ranganathan is a Cambridge Early Career Fellow and will be at the Centre in Lent 2019.

‘(Un)making a global commons: the ocean and the political economy of international law’

My project unpacks the legal construction of the ocean as a concatenation of exploitable resources in the 20th century. The aim is to write a critical history that is equally a story of international law—and projects of international legal ordering that emerged in this era of rapid political, technological and economic change—and a story of the ocean, as it was transformed in our collective imagination through these projects.

The motivation for this project lies in the current international anxieties around the possibilities of sustainable use of a rapidly eroding ocean. Such anxieties have been expressed in, for example, the UN Sustainable Development Goals of 2015, and the UN Ocean Conference of 2017. At these venues, a common theme is the hope that international law provides a medium through which the seemingly dissonant interests in commercial profitability, distributional equity, and ecological protection may be reconciled. Thus, efforts are underway to make new legal rules – such as for exploitation of seabed minerals, and for protection and use of the deep ocean’s biodiversity – that will foster alike the ‘blue economy’ and the ocean itself.

Drawing upon multiple archives and engaging with several bodies of social and scientific literature, my project examines the shaping of this discourse, reading through it both the multiple understandings of oceanic and legal utopia that emerged in the 20th century, and the formation of the dominant narrative described above.


Dr Surabhi Ranganathan is a University Lecturer in International Law, and a Fellow of King’s College, the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law and the Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance, at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include the oceans, global commons, natural resources, treaties and the history and politics of international law. She is the author of Strategically Created Treaty Conflicts and the Politics of International Law (CUP 2014), and asst. editor of The Cambridge Companion to International Law (2012). Her writing has appeared in the British Yearbook of International Law, American Journal of International Law and European Journal of International Law. Educated in New Delhi, Bangalore, New York and Cambridge (where she was a Gates Scholar), Surabhi has also taught at the University of Warwick, and was a Junior Research Fellow at King’s College and the Lauterpacht Centre, Cambridge and a Fellow and Program Officer at the Institute for International Law and Justice, NYU. She edits the International Legal Theory Section of the Leiden Journal of International Law.


Tel: +44 1223 766886