Long-sought high seas treaty by UN members a landmark win for oceans, biodiversity

The agreement will be formally adopted after vetting by lawyers and translation into the UN’s six official languages.

Nirmal Ghosh

Nirmal Ghosh

The Straits Times


The Intergovernmental Conference on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) congratulating its president Rena Lee on the successful conclusion of the BBNJ treaty. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

March 6, 2023

WASHINGTON – United Nations member states have agreed to the text of a landmark international treaty to protect the high seas beyond individual countries’ jurisdictions – the planet’s largest reservoir of biodiversity, of which only 1 per cent is currently protected.

“The ship has reached the shore,” conference president Rena Lee announced on Saturday night, to wide relief and applause from delegates after a gruelling, almost 40-hour session capping two weeks of negotiations at the UN headquarters in New York.

The agreement will be formally adopted after vetting by lawyers and translation into the UN’s six official languages.

“There will be no reopening or discussions of substance,” Mrs Lee told negotiators.

The treaty on the “Conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction”, among other things, obliges countries to conduct environmental impact assessments of proposed activities on the high seas. No longer will the waters beyond countries’ jurisdictions be a free-for-all.

A sensitive chapter on the sharing of potential benefits of newly discovered marine resources was one of the points of contention, with developing countries fighting against exclusion from potential commercialisation of discoveries.

“This new agreement on biodiversity of the high seas and deep seabed is the culmination of the dedicated efforts of countless persons committed to strengthening the protections of the biodiversity of our high seas and deep seabed. It represents a hopeful pathway for us to better govern our use of such precious resources,” said Mrs Lee, who is Singapore’s Ambassador for Oceans and Law of the Sea Issues and Special Envoy of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

“Much more hard work lies ahead to achieve our objective, and I hope that the agreement gives a boost to such efforts. But more than this, the conclusion of this agreement represents a strong affirmation that when nations come together, there is so much more that we can achieve collectively for the betterment of our world.”

Mrs Lee, who has been chairing the talks since 2018, is the second Singaporean to chair a UN conference on the law of the sea.

The first was Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, who chaired the conference that came up with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) in 1982.

“This is very good news,” Professor Koh told The Straits Times. “Given how fragmented the world has become, we were not sure whether Rena would be able to find consensus.”

He added: “What this shows is that multilateralism and international cooperation are still alive.

“The question is whether biodiversity is the common heritage of mankind. If so, how should the benefits be shared with all mankind, especially developing countries? The conference has managed to find consensus on all these important issues.”

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a Facebook post on Sunday: “Oceans are critical to island states like us. Happy to see Singaporeans contribute and lead in this arena. It is a step forward for our planet and for all who share the habitat together.”

The High Seas Alliance, a coalition of organisations including the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, said the treaty will “bring ocean governance into the 21st century” and ensure greater transparency.

The new treaty will provide a pathway to establishing marine protected areas, and includes establishing modern requirements to assess and manage planned human activities that would affect marine life, it said.

The alliance added: “This will greatly strengthen effective area-based management of fishing, shipping and other activities that have contributed to the overall decline in ocean health.”

It will be a key tool to reach the target of protecting at least 30 per cent protection of the world’s ocean by 2030, it added.

The agreement is a monumental occasion, said Mr Julian Jackson of Pew Charitable Trusts, one of a plethora of organisations that has long advocated the treaty.

“We now finally have in place the basic tools to try and protect… 95 per cent of the biosphere of the planet, as well as providing a mechanism for marine protected areas to help achieve 30 per cent (protection) of the ocean by 2030,” he said.

“The high seas treaty will… help ensure that new industrial activities on the high seas are properly assessed for potential harm to the marine environment, and ensure that the sustainable use of the high seas is truly sustainable.”

He noted that the treaty will also provide for the sharing of monetary benefits, including the sharing of genetic resources, the commercial exploitation of species in pharmaceutical applications, as well as ensuring technology transfer to developing countries.

“This will help ensure that all countries of the world can take part in the… conservation and sustainable use of the high seas, a global commons that belongs to all of us and yet none of us at the same time.”

Mrs Lee said: “The conclusion of substantive negotiations for this new agreement for biodiversity of the high seas and deep seabed is representative of what can be achieved when nations set aside their differences to find common ground in pursuit of shared objectives.

“The agreement alone cannot cure all ills that face our oceans. But the mechanisms and processes that the agreement puts in place can make a difference in how we tackle the problem of dwindling resources, and I hope that many countries will be able to sign and ratify the agreement as soon as possible.”

Speaking to reporters hours before the agreement was reached, Ms Monica Medina, United States Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, said: “This agreement will create a coordinated approach to establishing marine protected areas… critical to meeting our shared goal of conserving or protecting at least 30 per cent of the global ocean by 2030.”

She added: “Biodiversity is declining at a catastrophic rate. Conserving at least 30 per cent of the Earth – its land, inland waters and ocean – is vitally important to supporting nature’s ability to sustain people, economies, and the planet.”

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