Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General; Credit: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC

UN adopts historic High Seas Treaty

The UN’s 193 member states adopted a legally binding marine biodiversity agreement on Monday following nearly two decades of negotiations over forging a common wave of conservation and sustainability in the high seas beyond national boundaries – covering two thirds of the planet’s oceans.

Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General; Credit: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC

It forms the substance of an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention under the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ agreement). 

The deal contains 75 articles that aim at protecting, caring for, and ensuring the responsible use of the marine environment, maintaining the integrity of ocean ecosystems, and conserving the inherent value of marine biological diversity.

“The ocean is the lifeblood of our planet, and today, you have pumped new life and hope to give the ocean a fighting chance,” the UN Secretary-General António Guterres told delegates on Monday.

Twitter/Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General

One of its important features is that it sets out a process to enable the establishment of cross-sectoral Marine Protected Areas and other area-based management tools in the high seas and the underlying seabed. This is of particular note as currently with just over 1% of the high seas region protected, the BBNJ will be a key tool in delivering agreed-upon targets of 30% global MPAs.

According to UN estimates, by 2050, there could be more plastic in the sea than fish unless action is taken.

More than 17 million metric tons of plastic entered the world’s ocean in 2021, making up 85 percent of marine litter, and projections are expected to double or triple each year by 2040, according to the latest Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) report.

The treaty aims at strengthening resilience and contains provisions based on the polluter-pays principle as well as mechanisms for disputes.

In addition, under the treaty’s provisions, parties must assess the potential environmental impacts of any planned activities beyond their jurisdictions.

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The treaty underlines the importance of capacity building and the transfer of marine technology, including the development and strengthening of institutional capacity and national regulatory frameworks or mechanisms.

This includes increasing collaboration among regional seas organizations and regional fisheries management organizations. UN estimates show that more than one third of global fish stocks are over-exploited.

The treaty also aims to address rising ocean temperatures which are fueling more frequent and intense storms, rising sea levels, and the salinization of coastal lands and aquifers.

Namely, the treaty offers guidance, including through an integrated approach to ocean management that builds ecosystem resilience to tackle the adverse effects of climate change and ocean acidification, and maintains and restores ecosystem integrity, including carbon cycling services.

Treaty provisions also recognize the rights and traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities, the freedom of scientific research, and need for the fair and equitable sharing of benefits.

The new agreement “is critical to addressing the threats facing the ocean, and to the success of ocean-related goals and targets, including the 2030 Agenda“, the UN chief said on Monday.

Some of the goals and targets include Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, which aims at preventing and significantly reducing marine pollution of all kinds by 2025, and ending overfishing through science-based management plans in order to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible.

The treaty also considers the special circumstances facing small-island and landlocked developing nations.

“We have a new tool,” UN General Assembly President Csaba Kőrösi told the Intergovernmental Conference delegates on Monday.

“This landmark achievement bears witness to your collective commitment to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Together, you laid the foundation for a better stewardship of our seas, ensuring their survival for generations to come.”

Speaking at the UN Headquarters, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) welcomed the adoption of the landmark deal.

ICS has been an active part of the negotiations since 2016, representing the shipping industry in the discussions to ensure that the international maritime community is engaged and that the industry’s unique nature is considered. ICS’s position has also been to support governments’ understanding of the International Maritime Organization’s role as shipping’s global regulator.

“We are delighted that after more than two decades of work the High Seas Treaty has been formally adopted. There is still a way to go of course before it comes into effect, as 60 member states need to ratify, but this is without question a significant moment and should be celebrated,” Emily Rowley, ICS Policy Manager (Legal), who has represented ICS at the United Nations on BBNJ for over five years, said.

“From a shipping industry’s perspective, the High Seas Treaty agreement takes into account the IMO’s role and is intended to cover gaps in ocean governance. It will help ensure that emerging high seas industries will be as well-regulated as shipping is by IMO, with the detail of any measures that may be needed for ships to be discussed and agreed at IMO.”

As explained, the agreement is expected to bolster cooperation and coordination between UN agencies and other global and regional regulators of activities on the high seas., fostering a holistic approach to the protection of marine biodiversity and ecosystems in areas where two or more states might be responsible for preservation.

“It is important for shipping that the oceans are properly regulated and managed. The BBNJ Agreement is a meaningful step forward in ensuring that the oceans are used sustainably and conserved for present and future generations,” Rowley added.