UN meet begins over treaty to govern use of high seas

Fifth round of negotiations for international legal treaty to protect marine biodiversity beyond jurisdiction of countries

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Wednesday 17 August 2022
Photo for representation: Wikimedia Commons __

United Nations member states have gathered in New York to create a new, legally-binding global treaty to govern the use of the high seas. This could be the last round of negotiations for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity.

The treaty will help conserve biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) that lie outside countries’ 322-kilometre exclusive economic zones. 

Scientific information over the past decade has revealed the richness and vulnerability of marine biodiversity, particularly around seamounts, hydrothermal vents, sponges, and cold-water corals. 

However, there are several concerns about the increasing anthropogenic pressures posed by existing and emerging activities, such as fishing, mining, marine pollution, and bioprospecting in the deep sea. 

The Intergovernmental Conference of the UN began on August 15, 2022, and will go on till August 26. This is the fifth round of negotiations on the international instrument under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  

Read more: Assess marine biodiversity before permitting deep-sea mining: Experts

Fifth meet since 2017 

The UN general assembly had decided to convene an Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) in December 2017 to elaborate on the text of the legal instrument for protecting BBNJ under UNCLOS.

The IGC held four formal sessions in September 2018, March 2019, August 2019 and March 2022. The sessions were postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

The delegates were expected to conclude treaty negotiations at IGC-4 held from March 7-18, 2022. But several issues could not progress, so IGC President Rena Lee proposed an additional meeting (IGC-5). 

Now, the revised draft of the text is being negotiated upon at the meeting. Lee brought delegates’ attention to the revised draft text of an agreement, which considers textual proposals made during and after IGC-4 in March 2022. 

The discussions will focus on the marine genetic resources, including issues on sharing benefits, measures such as area-based management tools of marine protected areas, environmental impact assessments, capacity-building and the transfer of marine technology, as well as cost-cutting issues.  

Lee reminded the members of the second UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, June 2022 and said that almost everyone had called for a conclusion of negotiations “by the end of this year”.

UNCLOS was adopted in 1982 and laid the foundation of ocean governance, with the first single set of rules for oceans and seas. On April 29 2022, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) completed 40 years

There are two more instruments under the Convention: The 1994 agreement on the implementation of Part XI of UNCLOS and the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement.

The treaty on BBNJ will be the third legal instrument under the convention. 

Marine genetic resources and the issue of benefit-sharing are among the major elements of the draft negotiating text and were discussed in parallel sessions on August 16, 2022  

The discussions focused on the collection of MGRs of areas beyond national jurisdiction, with varying views on ways to restructure this part of the agreement. 

The provision of access to traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities associated with marine genetic resources on the high seas was also discussed.

The fate of deep-sea mining was also discussed by nations on August 9, 2022, at the 27th session of the Assembly of the International Seabed Authority. 

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