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Elisabeth Mann Borgese was born in Munich in 1918 to Katia Pringsheim and Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann. The fifth of six children, Elisabeth was born into an intellectual family whose views supported the post-war movement for World Federalism. In exile from Nazi Germany, Elisabeth earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Classics and a diploma from the Conservatory of Music in Zurich before her family immigrated to the United States in 1938. The following year, Elisabeth married Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, an Italian-born writer and professor at Princeton University, with whom she had two children, Domenica and Angelica.
Working as a research associate with Giuseppe Borgese and other international scholars at the University of Chicago, Elisabeth helped to form "The Committee to Frame a World Constitution" and edited their monthly journal, Common Cause. Her publishing and translation work expanded to include editorial positions in Italy with the Ford Foundation's Intercultural Publications, Perspectives USA, and Diogenes, a UNESCO quarterly. She also served as Executive Secretary with the Board of Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Widowed in 1952, Elisabeth continued to pursue the ideas articulated by the committee, writing a critical introduction to the Constitution of the World, which was reissued in 1966 by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California. It was through the Center, where she was Senior Fellow from 1964 to 1978, that Elisabeth first focused her attentions on the law of the sea as an area of critical international concern. She began to publish ocean-related research, including The Ocean Regime, a blueprint for a "constitution for the world's oceans," in an effort to urge world leaders to re-examine ocean governance. In the late 1960s, she organized the first Pacem in Maribus conference as a forum for discussing the law of the sea, bringing it to the attention of international governmental and non-governmental organizations.
The first Pacem in Maribus conference was held in Malta in 1970. The annual event has since been hosted by countries including Algeria, Cameroon, Canada, China, India, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Over time, the dialogue of diplomats, civil servants, industrialists, fisheries experts, oceanographers, biologists, economists, and legal experts regarding the factors affecting "the common heritage of mankind" laid the foundation for the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. A founding member of groups such as the Club of Rome, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and the Group of '78, Elisabeth invested great effort in working with organizations to influence international policy. In 1972, she established the International Ocean Institute (IOI) at the Royal University of Malta with the cooperation of the United Nations Development Programme and the Government of Malta. As Chairman of the Planning Council, she worked with the IOI to sponsor Pacem in Maribus, to conduct training programmes, and to facilitate and publish research with the goal of promoting peace and a deeper understanding of oceans and their resources in world policy and sustainable economic development.
In 1978, Elisabeth relocated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, taking up Canadian citizenship. As a Killam Fellow at Dalhousie University, she taught courses in political science and continued to pursue projects relating to disarmament, international development, integration of marine resources, and marine management. Serving as a member of the Austrian Delegation to the Third United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, the Preparatory Commission for the International Seabed Authority and the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, Elisabeth was instrumental in the 1982 adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and its entry into force in 1994.
Elisabeth's career was prolific and diverse. Attracted by Ghandi and his policy of sovereignty through peace, fascinated by the lives of animals and their methods of communication, a curious and creative writer of poetry, plays, and fiction, Elisabeth expressed her interests and dedication to the environment through the written word and through countless addresses. She published fifteen books, including The New International Economic Order and the Law of the Sea, The Drama of the Oceans, and The Ascent of Woman, as well as essays and short stories for publications such as New Directions, Nation, and Atlantic Monthly. Embracing challenge and diversity, Elisabeth acted as a consultant to the World Bank, UNIDO, and UNESCO, lectured internationally, and was granted the title of Honorary Doctor by three universities. She received prizes and honours from the governments of Austria, Canada, China, Colombia, Germany, and the UK and was also honoured with awards from the Francis of Assisi Environmental Committee, the United Nations, and the World Conservation Union. In 2001, Germany bestowed its most prestigious award on her, the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit. She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. A true citizen of the world, Elisabeth Mann Borgese - the "Ambassador of the Seas" - died at the age of 83 in St. Moritz after a morning on the slopes.