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High Sea Treaty: UN delegates reach historic agreement on protecting marine biodiversity in international waters

The Nepal Weekly
March 14, 2023

Secretary-General António Guterres has congratulated UN member countries for finalizing a text to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, calling it a “breakthrough” after nearly two decades of talks.   

“This action is a victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health, now and for generations to come,” said the UN chief in a statement issued by his Spokesperson late Saturday evening just hours after the deal was struck at UN Headquarters in New York, where tough negotiations on the draft treaty have been under way for the past two weeks. 

The agreement reached by delegates of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, better known by its acronym BBNJ, is the culmination of UN-facilitated talks that began in 2004.  

Already being referred to as the ‘High Seas Treaty’, the legal framework would put more money into marine conservation and covers access to and use of marine genetic resources. Through his Spokesperson, Mr. Guterres said the treaty is crucial for addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.  

“It is also vital for achieving ocean-related goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework,” said the statement, referring to the so-called ‘30 by 30’ pledge to protect 30 per cent of the planet’s lands and inland waters, as well as of marine and coastal areas, by 2030 made by a historic UN conference in Montreal this past December. 

Noting that the BBNJ decision builds on the legacy of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Secretary-General commended all parties for their ambition, flexibility and perseverance, and saluted Ambassador Rena Lee, of Singapore, for her leadership and dedication.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the ship has reached the shore,” Ms. Lee said last night, announcing the agreement to an extended standing ovation in the meeting room. Delegations will reconvene later to formally adopt the text.   The statement issued by the UN Spokesperson said the Secretary-General also recognized the critical support of non-governmental organizations, civil society, academic institutions and the scientific community.  

“He looks forward to continuing working with all parties to secure a healthier, more resilient, and more productive ocean, benefiting current and future generations,” the statement concluded.  CsabaKõrösi, President of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, reacting on Twitter, also congratulated the delegates and Ms. Lee for reaching consensus on a global legal framework for the high seas.

“This is a massive success for multilateralism. An example of the transformation our world needs and the people we serve demand,” he added.

Almost two-thirds of the world’s ocean lies outside national boundaries. These are the “high seas”, where fragmented and loosely enforced rules have meant a vast portion of the planet, hundreds of miles from land, is often essentially lawless.

Because of this, the high seas are more susceptible than coastal seas to exploitation. Currently, all countries can navigate, fish (or overfish) and carry out scientific research on the high seas practically at will. Only 1.2% of it is protected, and the increasing reach of fishing and shipping vessels, the threat of deep-sea mining, and new activities, such as ”bioprospecting” of marine species, mean they are being threatened like never before.

Yet, not only does a healthy ocean provide half of the oxygen we breathe, it represents 95% of the planet’s biosphere, soaks up carbon dioxide and is Earth’s largest carbon sink.

This week, delegates from 193 member states began the final talks at the UN headquarters in New York to conclude negotiations for what scientists have described as a “once in a lifetime” chance to at last protect the high seas.

Aimed at shielding huge swathes of the world’s ocean from exploitation, the talks – officially called the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, or BBNJ – are the fifth round of negotiations, which ended last August without agreement. The current round of talks began last week and will end on 3 March.

The pressure is on. Last month, the UN secretary general, AntónioGuterres, weighed in with strong words, saying the ocean was on the “frontlines” of the war against nature, and calling on nations to stop squabbling and conclude the delayed negotiations.

Above all, the talks are critical to enforcing the 30×30 pledge from the UN biodiversity conference in December: a promise to protect 30% of the ocean (as well as 30% of the land) by 2030. Without a high seas treaty, scientists and environmentalists agree the 30×30 pledge will fail, for the simple reason that no legal mechanism exists for establishing protected marine areas on the high seas – rendering any promises to do so meaningless. (Agencies)