A New Opening for Governance of the High Seas?

Optimism is in the air. There is a growing acceptance of the need to conserve the biodiversity and natural resources of the oceans. Scientific understanding of their importance and public awareness of the risk has spread rapidly in the last few years. But crafting an architecture for international governance is a laborious process.

Debate name: Oceans: The Incomplete Governance

Date: 13 November 2018

Promising efforts are under way in the UN to begin to tackle the challenge of the largely ungoverned High Seas, at least in terms of protection and sustainable use of the oceans. The prospect of a binding international accord is good news, but effective oceans governance is a challenge that will stretch beyond the scope of even an ambitious UN treaty. In order to foster impact, stakeholder engagement will be essential. The Paris Peace Forum hosted a brainstorming session on ways to do so, such as capitalizing on the oceans governance happening within the regions and engaging actors across sectors.

What’s the Problem?

In recent years, we have developed a much greater understanding of the biodiversity housed in our oceans and the impact it has on our living world. With new technologies, scientists are discovering much more about the importance of the resources and species they house, as well as the extent of degradation underway.

“Between 1955 and 2019, if the amount of energy that has gone into the top 2000 meters of the ocean had gone into  [lower] atmosphere, we would have seen warming of the atmosphere of 36 degrees … The oceans are an amazing sink, not only for heat and energy but for carbon as well.”

Chip Cunliffe, XL Catlin

The oceans and maritime life are essential to the oxygen we breathe, the food chain and ecosystems we depend on. They absorb carbon dioxide and regulate the global temperature and weather patterns. The oceans are the backbone of global trade and provide livelihood for millions, and the sea beds provide a wealth of natural resources.

Unfortunately, as the panelists starkly warned, there are more stressors on our oceans than ever before. Public attention has gravitated around the exploding plastic waste in our seas, but as Chip Cunliffe from XL Catlin emphasized, this is just part of the problem. Trends like deoxidation and carbon emissions are even more serious. Overfishing, ocean acidification, pollution and rising global temperatures are rapidly escalating and threatening marine ecosystems. And we are only starting to understand the breadth of the problem. “Ninety-three percent of excess heat from greenhouse gasses have been absorbed into the ocean. We don’t know yet what the impact of that will be.”

He kept going. Sea beds are the new frontier; we are just starting to really map and explore them. Resource competition and exploitation are growing significantly, bolstered by new extraction and mining techniques.  Economic activity at sea has exploded in recent years and it is expected to double again in the next decade or so. Start looking at secondary effects and you see frightening risks for the ecosystem, food chain impacts, land erosion, and consequences on economic livelihood.

More active maritime policies have become urgent. Especially so with the High Seas, the vast ocean space beyond any territorial control of nations (their boundaries and offshore Exclusive Economic Zones). We still lack an international architecture to effectively protect and govern its resources and its use. What exists is largely a patchwork of authorities across regional and functional organizations, leaving far too much open vulnerability – especially as access, activity, and abusive behavior rapidly expand.

Pew Charitable Trusts: Get the facts about the high seas—the two-thirds of our world’s oceans that are not under any country’s jurisdiction. This quick whiteboard tutorial explains why these international waters are so important and how the United Nations can help protect high seas marine life and ocean resources.

An Opportunity

The good news is that a global consensus to better conserve and protect the High Seas is percolating. As scientific understanding of the wealth of marine resources and their impact on human well-being has exploded, so has a momentum to act. Building on a growing swell of activism, public awareness, and informal discussions over the last two decades, a UN track slowly emerged.

Ocean conservation was integrated into the Sustainable Development Goals, and in 2015 the UN formally launched negotiations for an international treaty on protecting biodiversity in the High Seas. Negotiations are progressing, albeit slowly. At the end of summer 2019, parties anticipate the first draft (a “zero draft”). Fishing rights and resource sharing will be highly contentious issues. But generally, there is some common ground to work with.

If states can reach an international agreement to protect the biodiversity of the High Seas, it will be historic. It would be the first internationally binding treaty on oceans activity since the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982. It would bring international standards and practices to a lawless territory covering roughly half the surface of the globe.

But as the Paris Peace Forum’s panel pointed out, a UN accord is just a slice of what’s needed for effective governance of the High Seas. Whether the treaty turns out to be just a sketch of new common principles or it secures more ambitious pledges, there will certainly be more work to come.

At the End of the Tunnel

The new UN treaty is expected to serve as a first step towards global governance of the High Seas – a new outline of common principles. Implementation and coordination will still need to be defined concretely.

The Forum’s brainstorm session pointed out some key challenges to watch out for: enforcement, regional specificities, and definitive platforms for cross-fertilization and coordination. Perhaps most fundamentally is an approach that thinks more holistically about the governance approach to the High Seas and the integrated challenges of the maritime domain.

Effective maritime conservation will demand a comprehensive approach. As both Cunliffe and Rochette emphasized: all elements of ocean activity should be considered.

“We can only build resilience if we look at it holistically, all the types of stressors on the oceans and how we will respond.”

Julien Rochette, IDDRI

This is a functional challenge as well as a philosophical one. Over the years, various guidelines on use of the High Seas have been put in place, with authorities scattered across specialized agencies. For example, the International Maritime Organization governs shipping practices, the International Seabed Authority sets guidelines for exploration of mineral resources and regional fisheries bodies lead the oversight in their industry.

In effect, there is no harmonized mechanism for conservation of the oceans and maritime life. Given the importance of the biodiversity in the oceans, we are long past due. A new international treaty may provide the grounding, but bureaucratic functionality is needed as well. Julien Rochette of IDDRI emphasized that this patchwork of authorities has evolved incrementally and the best approach would be just to “live with the complexity. There is no reason to just delete some organizations; they each have their raison d’être. We have to make everything work together.”

He advised to look for linkages and ways for authorities to coordinate and complement their mandates. Oceans issues cut across specialized portfolios and often require a wide-lens view, whether that be under an international umbrella or a national one. Rochette recommended that national governments also consider how their bureaucracies address maritime issues.

Another theme was the importance of enforcement of any new international pledges on governing the High Seas and protecting its biodiversity. Tricky, as always. But given the legacy of weak compliance on other binding oceans regulations, it will be important that the new momentum around biodiversity and the High Seas does not get lost once paper pledges are signed.

Who’s on the Hot Seat

“There are so many actors in this space, all really working for this same goal…It’s really important to use that momentum.”

Chip Cunliffe, XL Catlin

First, with regards to regions, the panel included insight from Julien Rochette, an oceans specialist at IDDRI (French policy institute focused on sustainable development), who is leading a project to work with regional oceans authorities on issues of biodiversity. Regions are particularly important. Even with an ambitious global agreement on new conservation standards, it will be up to regional bodies to handle certain enforcement provisions. Rochette argued strongly that there should not be a new central (international) body, but rather effective coordination mechanisms between the layers.

“It’s not an either-or. It’s not either a strong [UN] agreement or strong regional organizations. We need both.”

Julien Rochette, IDDRI

His idea is to have a dynamic process of scientific knowledge exchange from different regions. An intra-regional coordination platform would allow for a sharing of strategies, experiences and limitations while still sharing these to the global stage, without being limited by it. The benefits of this stand in the context-specificity of each region in terms of capacity problems, which would challenging to tackle appropriately from a central regulatory mechanism.

Secondly, Rochette stresses the importance of fostering public-private partnerships that can help enforce any new regulatory framework, and especially oversee the implementation of new technologies. The latter are evolving extremely rapidly, and are becoming increasingly available, including the use of satellite data and machine learning to monitor fishing. This also goes to demonstrate how many actors have stakes in the situation, ranging from regional organizations to scientific bodies; from NGOs to philanthropists and more.

Effectively, there is great need for thorough attention in the High Seas great. All the vulnerabilities that this space represents, such as lack of protection and enforcement, also hold tremendous promise for data, new information and investment. The crucial element that should glue them all together is a thorough, well balanced and immaculate understanding of what is at stake. As Chip Cunliff put it, “understanding the hazards, our exposure, and our vulnerabilities will help us plug them.”

What’s next?

Technological advances and scientific discoveries of recent years have greatly deepened our understanding of the vital importance of ocean areas for our living world, and the extent to which they are at risk.

Good oceans policy reaps real benefit for environment and human life across the globe. It is an obvious issue for collective action, multi-national and multi-stakeholder. Let’s maximize the moment.

chip cunliffe Catherine TRENT NORRIS
Chip Cunliffe and Catherine Trent Norris at the 2018 Paris Peace Forum

Panel Participants

The Forum thanks panel participants: Julien Rochette, Oceans Program Director, Institut du Développement Durable et des Relations Internationales (IDDRI); Chip Cunliffe, Head of Sustainable Development, XL Catlin.

The panel was moderated by Catherine Norris Trent, Reporter, France 24.

This is a publication of the Paris Peace Forum reflecting the debates at the Forum’s inaugural session in November 2018. It does not necessarily represent the conclusions of each individual participant.


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About the Paris Peace Forum

The Paris Peace Forum is an annual event aiming to push forward new rules and solutions to address the global challenges of our time. All actors of global governance are invited to join the Paris Peace Forum 11-13 November in Paris, France.

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