Written by Anoushka Patel
Edited by Annika Lilja
After three fruitless attempts at negotiations in the past year alone, late at night on the 4th of March in New York, UN member states finally agreed on a treaty to protect the high seas. Pulling through a day after the official deadline, the conference president, Rena Lee of Singapore, announced in Room 2 of the UN Headquarters that a deal had been finalised. “In Singapore, we like to go on learning journeys, and this has been the learning journey of a lifetime,” Lee said. Delegates worked around the clock for two days without leaving the conference hall, determined to secure a deal.
The long-awaited treaty is crucial for enforcing the 30x30 pledge made by countries at the UN Biodiversity Conference in December 2022 to protect a third of the sea and land by 2030. The treaty will provide a legal framework for establishing vast marine protected areas (MPAs) to protect against the loss of wildlife and share the genetic resources of the high seas. It will also establish a conference of parties (COP) or all member states who congregate periodically to discuss the logistics of the treaty and hold any nations in violation of the treaty to account.
The “high seas” refers to almost two-thirds of the world’s oceans that lie in international waters, meaning they are not subject to any of the rules that apply to waters inside a nation's authority. Few legal protections exist to govern activity on the high seas, and there have been several instances of countries exploiting the lack of regulations to illegally overfish.
International waters are home to spectacular marine biodiversity and unique habitats, such as deep-sea coral gardens and underwater mountains. But these ecosystems are under threat, and many ocean species, including sharks, rays and whales, risk extinction due to overfishing and climate change. In the latest assessment of marine species, nearly 10% were found to be at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
An agreement involving 193 countries is rare and impressive, but there have been concerns among marine conservationists that there is a large room for improvement. One such cause for concern is that countries agreed that existing bodies already responsible for regulating activities such as fisheries, shipping and deep-sea mining could continue to do so without having to carry out environmental impact assessments laid out by the treaty.
One of the most divisive issues was how to fairly share marine genetic resources (MGR) and the eventual profits. MGR, which consists of the genetic material of deep-sea marine sponges, krill, corals, seaweeds, and bacteria, are attracting increasing scientific and commercial attention due to their potential use in medicines and cosmetics. Countries in the Global South argued that since they did not have the same expensive technology as Western nations to mine for these precious resources, benefit-sharing should be clarified in the treaty text.
Michael Imran Kanu, the Head of the African Group and Deputy Permanent representative to the UN for legal affairs of Sierra Leone, said the treaty was “robust and ambitious.” Kanu, who previously expressed frustration over the fair sharing of benefits, said: “We really achieved amazing results” on this issue. According to the treaty, monetary and non-monetary benefits will be shared and an initial upfront fund would be set up under the treaty. In a move seen as an attempt to build trust between rich and poor countries – who at times have clashed over the terms of the treaty - the European Union pledged nearly 820 million euros for international ocean protection.
Reaching an agreement on the text of the treaty is a significant breakthrough, but it is certainly not the end point for the protection of our seas. The treaty needs to be formally adopted by member states, then passed in legislation by at least 60 countries before it can be enforced. Similar international treaties, such as the Paris Climate Agreement, took almost a year to be signed and ratified, and ambiguous provisions of the agreement have caused some to be skeptical of the actual impact the treaty will have on our planet, if any.
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McVeigh Karen. “Crucial high seas treaty stuck over sharing of genetic resources.” The Guardian, 3rd March 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/mar/03/crucial-un-high-seas-treaty-stuck-over-sharing-of-genetic-resources
European Commission. “Our Ocean Conference: EU announces €816.5 million worth of commitments to protect the ocean.” European Commission Press Release, 2nd March 2023, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_23_1290
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