Bringing the Ocean to Society
16 Sep 2019
International negotiations to protect the high seas advancing at slow pace
UN negotiations are likely to require some additional sessions after April 2020 in order to prepare new treaty.

As reported by EURACTIV and by IPS, the third session of negotiations on the preservation of marine biodiversity in the high seas, held under a UN Intergovernmental Conference, ended in New York on 30 August. However, negotiations only resulted in a framework for a future treaty. Negotiations revolved around four key themes, including so-called ‘benefit-sharing’ of marine genetic resources, marine area management tools including for marine protected areas, environmental impact assessments, as well as the transfer of marine technology.

The two-week long meeting, described as the third in a series of four substantive sessions of an intergovernmental conference of 190 member states, concluded without “a serious commitment” to a longstanding proposed high seas treaty. A final negotiating session is scheduled to take place in the first half of 2020. Although the next session of the UN negotiations will be held from 23 March to 3 April 2020, this may not be the last. That is because some states are already deeming some additional sessions necessary.

Not surprisingly, some issues were met with more resistance, according to Klaudija Cremers, a research fellow in international marine policy at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI). “Until now, States had made major statements to clarify their positions. This time, they have entered into substantive discussions, although there are still many uncertainties,” the research fellow noted.

“States agreed on including the modalities on sharing the benefits of marine genetic resources in the treaty’s text, without wanting to postpone the matter to future negotiations. They have also agreed to consider non-monetary benefits,” Cremers added. However, there is still considerable uncertainty as to who receives the benefits and whether sharing is mandatory.

Asked about the roadblocks during recent negotiations, Liz Karan, Project Director for Protecting Ocean Life on the High Seas at Pew Charitable Trusts, told IPS: “The challenging issues in the negotiations have not changed.” She said countries still need to find solutions for sharing benefits derived from marine genetic resources, and how a new treaty body will coordinate with existing regional fisheries management organizations, and sectoral organizations such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

Dr. Sandra Schoettner of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign, said: “It is very disappointing to see that the pace and ambition in this meeting don’t match the level of urgency required to save our oceans and protect our planet against the climate emergency and massive biodiversity loss we are facing.” She said the lack of political will for a progressive outcome of these negotiations is alarming as some countries clearly still favour exploitation over protection. Keeping things as they are is not going to save our oceans or, ultimately, humankind. “That’s why it’s so frustrating to see some UN members proposing insufficient solutions that don’t represent a real change for our oceans,” she noted.

Earlier in August 2019, IDDRI had published an issue brief entitled “High Hopes for the High Seas: beyond the package deal towards an ambitious treaty”, accessible here. The document had been prepared to highlight the growing threats to biodiversity in marine areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) and how States at the United Nations are negotiating a treaty to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of this vast global commons. The negotiations provide a unique and timely opportunity to strengthen the management regime for the global ocean, building on the vision of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The new treaty will cover a ‘package deal’ of issues: marine genetic resources (MGRs); area-based management tools (ABMTs), including marine protected areas (MPAs); environmental impact assessments (EIAs); and capacity building and technology transfer. In order to be effective, ambitious provisions are needed on each of these elements, including by addressing climate change and ensuring the protection of marine ecosystems. A fair and equitable treaty could further support conservation and sustainable use by strengthening existing management frameworks and providing global oversight, developing capacity, and placing science at the heart of decision making.

The Summary of the Third Session of the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction held on 19-30 August 2019 can be found here.