UN member states reached agreement on Saturday 4 March on the first international treaty to protect the high seas, designed to counter threats to ecosystems vital to humanity.
In 1982, UN member states agreed to sign a Convention on the Law of the Sea. The negotiations on the new treaty will have lasted almost twenty years, and their positive outcome is good news because nothing predicted that the member countries would finally agree.
After two weeks of intense discussions, including a late-night session on Friday, delegates finalised a text that can no longer be significantly changed. “There will be no reopening or substantive discussions” on this issue, conference chair Rena Lee assured negotiators.
In addition to the recognition of a common heritage of humanity, the fifty-four page text is supposed to lay the groundwork for a plan to safeguard the ocean. Among other things, it provides for the creation of marine protected areas covering an area equivalent to 30% of the high seas. This is a way of giving concrete expression to the promises made at the last COP for biodiversity signed in Montreal at the beginning of the winter.
“The delimitation of these areas will be based on consensus and on a case-by-case basis,” says Frédéric Le Manach, scientific director of Bloom, an association involved in the fight against the destruction of marine ecosystems. “There is a risk of ending up with protected areas where destructive human activities are still authorised, as is the case in France…
The other pillar of the new treaty? A more equitable sharing of marine genetic resources. The new agreement should thus lead to the creation of a common fund to which a portion of the profits from the high seas would be paid, around 2%. What remains to be done is to “find the right mechanism to implement all this beyond the simple promise”, says Frédéric Le Manach.
The exact content of the text was not immediately released, but campaigners hailed it as a watershed moment for biodiversity protection. “This is a historic day for conservation, and a sign that in a divided world, protecting nature and people can triumph over geopolitics,” said Greenpeace’s Laura Meller.
In a joint statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of State for the Sea, France also welcomed a “historic agreement”. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres congratulated delegates, according to a spokesman: the agreement is a “victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter destructive trends that threaten the health of the oceans, now and for generations to come. EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius said he was “very proud” of the treaty, hailing it as “a historic moment for our oceans”.
The NGO Bloom, however, fears “soft processes that do not name things” and a Treaty “that will remain a wind” in the absence of “political will to carry out concrete actions”, says Frédéric Le Manach.
The new international treaty on the protection of the high seas must now be translated into the six official UN languages in the coming weeks, before being sent to each of the organisation’s member countries for validation by national parliaments. The consent of at least sixty countries will be required for it to enter into force.