March 10, 2023 climate

UN reached an agreement to protect 30 percent of high seas. Talks took almost 20 years

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Sea turtle at Hanauma Bay reserve in East Honolulu, Hawaii, US.

Picture by: FHKE | Flickr

On March 4, the United Nations closed negotiations on a treaty to protect the high seas – the waters beyond any nation’s jurisdiction. The high seas make up two-thirds of Earth’s oceans.

The treaty is a legal framework which will protect 30% of the world’s oceans and would enable achieving the global goal of the 2022 World Nature Conference in Montreal, where it was agreed to protect 30% of Earth for nature by 2030.

Furthermore, the new treaty includes territory protective measures on marine reserves and environmental impact assessments concerning human activity on the high seas (including fishing, deep sea mining, and the exploitation of other marine resources). It is supposed to reinforce the engagement of developing countries on the high seas with provisions for capacity development and transfer of marine technology (with the intention of benefit sharing).

Unlike the previous conventions on the high seas, the new agreement creates procedures for its provisions to be implemented, yet the efficacy of these tools will be tested over time.

It took almost two decades of negotiations to reach a new agreement, which the UN immediately described as ‘historic’. In 2017, in order to care for the conservation of marine biological diversity and sustainable use of areas beyond national jurisdiction, the United Nations General Assembly voted in to develop this legally binding international instrument. After six sessions held between 2018 and 2023, during which the remaining issues were ironed out, the agreement on the treaty was finally reached on 4th March 2023.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the ship has reached the shore,” said Ambassador Rena Lee of Singapore, who chaired the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ). In this United Nations body, the negotiations took place.

However, the new convention has yet to be formally adopted and ratified by at least sixty states in order to come into force.

A new agreement was deemed necessary since only 1% of the high seas were protected by a patchwork of international conventions, some of which dated all the way back to the 1950s.

The first UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was agreed upon in 1956 and resulted in four treaties concerning marine and maritime activities. One of these, the Convention on the High Seas, came into force in 1962.

However, it left open the issue of the breadth of territorial waters. Subsequent conferences – in 1960 and 1973 – were hampered by discrepancies in the treaty and the lack of significance for developing countries, which found certain provisions to be impeding their economic growth. In 1994, the third UNCLOS, which was negotiated from 1973 until 1982, came into force.

The newly agreed High Seas Treaty closes the legal gap, as none of the previous UNCLOS provided a framework for the protection of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) and the tools for the implementation of agreed provisions.

Written by:

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Flora Lodd

Environment correspondent

Berlin, Germany

Born in 2005, Flora is a high school student from Berlin. Interested in biology and planning to become a researcher in the field of maritime conservation, Flora intends to study abroad, aiming at achieving a master’s degree in marine biology in the United States.

In her free time, Flora plays the piano, bass, acoustic and electric guitars, and drums. When possible, she can also be found surfing and windsurfing.

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