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Final Push to Launch U.N. Negotiations on High Seas Treaty

A trawler in Johnstone Strait, BC, Canada. Human activities such as pollution, overfishing, mining, geo-engineering and climate change have made an international agreement to protect the high seas more critical than ever. Credit: Winky/cc by 2.0

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 20 2015 (IPS) - The United Nations will make its third – and perhaps final – attempt at reaching an agreement to launch negotiations for an international biodiversity treaty governing the high seas.

A four-day meeting of a U.N. Ad Hoc Working Group is expected to take a decision by Friday against a September 2015 deadline to begin negotiations on the proposed treaty.

“The world’s international waters, or high seas, are a modern-day Wild West, with weak rules and few sheriffs.” -- Lisa Speer of NRDC

Sofia Tsenikli, senior oceans policy advisor at Greenpeace International, told IPS, “This is the last scheduled meeting where we hope to see the decision to launch negotiations materialise.”

Asked about the timeline for the final treaty itself, she said “it really depends on the issues that will come up during the negotiations.”

In a statement released Monday, the High Seas Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups, said the high seas is a vast area that makes up nearly two-thirds of the ocean and about 50 percent of the planet’s surface, and currently falls outside of any country’s national jurisdiction.

“This means it’s the largest unprotected and lawless region on Earth,” the Alliance noted.

The lack of governance on the high seas is widely accepted as one of the major factors contributing to ocean degradation from human activities.

The issues to be discussed include marine protected areas and environmental impact assessments in areas beyond national jurisdiction, as well as benefit-sharing of marine genetic resources, capacity building and transfer of marine technology.

At the same time, the growing threat from human activities, including pollution, overfishing, mining, geo-engineering, and climate change, have made an international agreement to protect these waters more critical than ever, says the High Seas Alliance.

Lisa Speer, international oceans programme director at the Natural Resources Defence Council, says “The world’s international waters, or high seas, are a modern-day Wild West, with weak rules and few sheriffs.”

Kristina M. Gjerde, senior high seas policy advisor at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), told IPS U.N. member states have the historic opportunity to launch negotiations for a new global agreement to better protect, conserve and sustain the nearly 50 percent of the planet that is found beyond national boundaries.

The U.N. process, initiated at the 2012 Rio+20 summit in Brazil, has extensively explored the scope, parameters and feasibility of a possible new international instrument under the 1994 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), she added.

“It is clear that by now the vast majority of States are overwhelmingly in support,” Gjerde said.

Though some outstanding issues remain, IUCN is confident that once negotiations are launched, rapid progress can be made toward achieving an effective and equitable agreement, she added.

“With good luck, good will and good faith, negotiations, including a preparatory stage, could be accomplished in as little as two to three years,” Gjerde declared.

At the Rio+20 meeting, member states pledged to launch negotiations for the new treaty by the end of the 69th U.N. General Assembly in September 2015.

In a briefing paper released Monday, Greenpeace called on the 193-member General Assembly to take a “historic decision to develop an agreement under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond the jurisdiction of States.”

Unfortunately a few countries, including the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and Iceland, have expressed opposition to an agreement going forward. But this could change, it added.

Norway – previously unconvinced – has now become supportive and calls for the launch of a meaningful implementing agreement for biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ).

For the United States in particular, said Greenpeace, standing against progress towards a U.N. agreement that would provide the framework for establishing a global network of ocean sanctuaries would be at odds with the U.S.’s leadership on ocean issues such as the establishment of marine reserves in EEZ’s (Exclusive Economic Zones) as well as the Arctic, Antarctic and fight against illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.

The environmental groups say there is overwhelming support for an UNCLOS implementing agreement from countries and regional country groupings across the world, from Southeast Asian nations, to African governments, European and Latin American countries and Small Island Developing States.

Among them are Australia, New Zealand, the African Union, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Group of 77 developing nations plus China, the 28-member European Union, Philippines, Brazil, South Africa, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica, Mexico, Benin, Pakistan, Uruguay, Uganda and many more.

Karen Sack, senior director of The Pew Charitable Trusts international oceans work, said the upcoming decision could signal a new era of international cooperation on the high seas.

“If countries can commit to work together on legal protections for biodiversity on the high seas, we can close existing management gaps and secure a path toward sustainable development and ecosystem recovery,” she added.

According to the environmental group, the high seas is defined as the ocean beyond any country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – amounting to 64 percent of the ocean – and the ocean seabed that lies beyond the continental shelf of any country.

These areas make up nearly 50 percent of the surface of the Earth and include some of the most environmentally important, critically threatened and least protected ecosystems on the planet.

Only an international High Seas Biodiversity Agreement, says the coalition, would address the inadequate, highly fragmented and poorly implemented legal and institutional framework that is currently failing to protect the high seas – and therefore the entire global ocean – from the multiple threats they face in the 21st century.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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