Finalizing the high seas treaty to protect the marine commons

After nearly two decades of discussions at the United Nations and in world capitals, governments are in the final stages of negotiating the BBNJ treaty (Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction), which will finally bring legal protection to marine life in our shared global common – the high seas. With new and emerging pressures from human activities threatening oceans every day, it is critical to reach a robust agreement to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of the high seas as soon as possible. This session provided an opportunity for government and business leaders to exchange views on what is needed to successfully conclude these negotiations in 2021.

Author: Sciences Po student Johannes Ludwig summarizes the debate session of the third edition of the Paris Peace Forum

Debate title: Towards blue governance: Bringing the high seas treaty over the finish line

Date: 12 November 2020

In 2017, the UN General Assembly convened an Intergovernmental Conference to draft a treaty on the sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The participants of this session of the 2020 Paris Peace Forum discussed what steps are needed to finalize an effective and future-oriented treaty.

José Maria Figueres, moderator of the discussion, former President of Costa Rica, and Co-founder of Ocean Unite, reminded the panelists that oceans cover two-thirds of our planet’s surface and that high sea governance is key to the protection of our common good.

Rena Lee, Ambassador for Oceans and Law of the Sea Issues and Special Envoy of the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Singapore and President of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ IGC), underlined that the negotiations of the treaty had already made significant progress but were still ongoing. She stressed that it is important not to lose momentum in times of pandemic and to continue to fight for a balanced agreement. She welcomed the participating governments’ initiative and prioritization of the BBNJ negotiations.

Annick Girardin, the French Minister of Marine Affairs, called the negotiations one of France’s top priorities and stressed that both political will and responsibility were needed to address the challenges of ocean protection. Referencing the Paris Agreement, she recalled that human wellbeing and ocean protection are interrelated and urged for areas beyond national jurisdiction to be treated as common goods. The oceans are not only crucial to the livelihood of present generations but also, and more importantly, to those of future generations. Girardin expressed that the treaty would not imply any legal obligations and was of a “strictly moral” nature.

Sir Richard Branson, co-founder of Ocean Unite, expressed his concern not only as a private person but also as a business leader. “A healthy ocean means a healthy future”, he stressed and reminded the audience that the oceans were responsible for the production of more than fifty percent of the planet’s oxygen and served as carbon storage. Ninety percent of world trade and billions of lives depend on the sustainability of the oceans. In a time of nationalist backlash, the climate and ocean crises perfectly illustrate the need for multilateral approaches.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, welcomed the negotiations for the treaty as the third implementing agreement of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and called for a “renewed sense of urgency”. He reminded the audience of the European Union’s commitment to biodiversity under the framework of the European Green Deal that contained the EU’s roadmap to carbon neutrality. He underlined that the international community’s efforts were “ambitious, but yet not enough”. He encouraged leaders to have political courage “beyond the next elections” and pointed to the EU as a “leader by example”.

Asked about the most challenging part of the treaty, Rena Lee noted that now was the time for governments to “take a step back from the nuts and bolts of the negotiations”. Now, the focus needed to be on finding a balanced solution. A balance not only between the different and often divergent interests but also between conservation and sustainability and between certainty and flexibility. She further argued that, when talking about the “sustainable use” of resources, the focus should be on sustainability rather than on use.

Annick Girardin joined her fellow panelists in calling for multilateral approaches to ocean affairs and emphasized the need for an “ambitious and robust treaty”. Even though there was still a lack of scientific knowledge about the oceans – which the UN Decade of Ocean Science aims to compensate for – she urged negotiating parties to “take decisions” at the upcoming fourth session of the Intergovernmental Conference.

Richard Branson concluded by calling the ongoing treaty negotiations a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to induce a paradigm change in ocean management and conservation that is badly needed for our own and future generations’ sake.

By Johannes Ludwig

Watch the full debate

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