UN Oceans Treaty Reaches the Shore

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    Stockholm (NordSIP) – On Saturday, March 4th,  UN delegates finalised the wording of a UN Ocean Treaty, an agreement that seeks to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.

    The agreement was reached by delegates of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) and is the culmination of UN-facilitated talks that began in 2004.

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    Following nearly 36 hours of non-stop negotiations, Rena Lee (Singapore), BBNJ President announced that “the ship has reached the shore,”  as the conference room burst into applause at the announcement of the finalised text.

    The Agreement

    The COP15’s 30×30 target is the centre piece of the Draft Agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, as the document is known. According to Greenpeace, this agreement facilitates the viability of the 30×30 target agreed at Biodiversity COP15, according to which the parties to the agreement aim to conserve 30% of the planet’s terrestrial and marine habitat by 2030.

    The new treaty facilitates the designation of large-scale marine protected areas on the high seas, which are not covered by national jurisdictions. The exception granted to deep-sea mining presents a missed opportunity which was seen as the trade-off necessary to get some agreement, rather than none. Activists commiserated over the decision of the treaty to exempt deep-sea mining in international waters, which is presently governed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

    Another focus of the negotiations was marine genetic resources, biological material from plants and animals in the ocean that can have benefits for society, such as pharmaceuticals, industrial processes and food. The fair sharing of monetary benefits from Marine Genetic Resources was a key sticking point. Developed countries currently have the resources and funding necessary to explore the deep ocean but developing countries wanted future benefits to be shared equally.

    A Welcome Step Forward

    “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 UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who called the agreement a “breakthrough”.

    “This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, protecting nature and people can triumph over geopolitics. We praise countries for seeking compromises, putting aside differences and delivering a Treaty that will let us protect the oceans, build our resilience to climate change and safeguard the lives and livelihoods of billions of people,” Dr. Laura Meller, Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace Nordic, said on this occasion.

    “It’s a great win for international cooperation to reach a high-seas treaty after fifteen years. We’re talking about 47 per cent of the World’s surface, and this treaty will hopefully bring a new paradigm of equitable conservation and sustainable use of the high seas”, comments Frida Bengtsson, researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

    “It’s important that these areas are designated in an inclusive way. All stakeholders need to be involved in the designation, and it needs to be really clear why these areas are chosen and what can be expected from protecting them,” says Robert Blasiak, another Ocean researcher with the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

    “We can now finally move from talk to real change at sea. Countries must formally adopt the Treaty and ratify it as quickly as possible to bring it into force, and then deliver the fully protected ocean sanctuaries our planet needs. The clock is still ticking to deliver 30×30. We have half a decade left, and we can’t be complacent,” Greenpeace’s Meller added.

    “Time is not on our side, and while the Treaty comes into force, it’s imperative that States take all actions necessary to protect the ocean, including the fragile ecosystems and biodiversity of the deep sea. As an immediate action, we call on all States to join the growing momentum in support of  a moratorium, precautionary pause or a ban on deep-sea mining, and we urge the few flag States still allowing their vessels to bottom trawl on seamounts to agree to phase out the practice in ABNJ,” Sofia Tsenikli of the of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) said.

    What Role for the ISA?

    Perhaps the most interesting reaction to the treaty came from ISA, the body mandated by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to organise and control activities in the international seabed area (the Area), i.e.: “the seabed and ocean floor and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”.

    The organisation seemed to go to some length to underline its authority on matters seemingly overlapping over its jurisdiction. Discussing its responsibilities ISA noted they include “adopting the necessary measures to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment and conservation of marine biodiversity, including the natural resources of the Area to which the BBNJ Agreement will apply.”

    As Climate Home News notes, the ISA has been criticised by Greenpeace, who argued that “far from protecting our oceans, they are selling it off to greedy industries that are trying to plunder our ocean floor for profit.” Thus the exception made for deep sea mining was seen as the outcome of rumoured lobbying by ISA to protect its authority. Perhaps seeking to address these criticisms, the ISA noted it has “also developed a comprehensive regime for environmental impact assessments for activities in the Area. In the exploration phase, there are substantive regulations and recommendations in place related to the assessment of possible environmental impacts. ISA is also in the process of developing procedures and standards for environmental impact assessments as part of the draft regulations to govern the exploitation of mineral resources in the Area.”

    The ISA concluded its remarks on the UN Ocean Treaty by noting it “stands ready to work with all relevant stakeholders to implement the ambitious goals set out by the BBNJ Agreement.”

    Image courtesy of Greenpeace
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