High Seas Treaty: What Ocean Do You Want?

HSA/Civil Society

It’s taken almost two decades to get this far – a whole generation – from when discussions started in conference corridors on the need to address the patchy rules and regulations that make up ocean governance, to a negotiating process to finalize a full-blown treaty at the United Nations. We are almost there. From the 20th February-3rd March, world governments will once again arrive at the UN headquarters in New York to hopefully wrap up negotiations for a brand new global agreement designed to protect marine life on the high seas.

Frustratingly, time moves too slowly in international environmental governance. It does not reflect the urgency of the accelerating biodiversity and climate crises outside of conference walls, and it has not been helped by a global health pandemic that pressed pause on almost all international negotiations. Which is why we don’t have the luxury of time. The pressure is on to ensure that the treaty that is finally agreed will result in a healthy ocean rather than a degraded one.

The good news is we have some wind in our sails from the recent global Biodiversity Conference and the agreement of the Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework which includes an ambitious but achievable 30% ocean protection target. We now need a Treaty to provide the legal tools to turn this target into a reality. This new UN treaty can catalyze progress by uniting us as a global community to safeguard 50% of our planet that make up the high seas that belong to us all.

Some of the world’s greatest minds are coming together to write this rule book for high seas biodiversity governance. They will need to tackle a few key issues which could make or break an ambitious treaty. Many of these issues are technical, but what it comes down to is whether this new treaty will have the power to go beyond the current status quo, address power imbalances and restore ocean health, or will it continue to perpetuate an ineffective and unjust system- as the image above depicts.

These issues include:

  • Having the mandate to enable the full protection of certain high seas areas. This means fully empowering the Treaty to put in place highly and fully marine protected areas and the necessary protective measures, which is beyond the existing mandate of regional and sectoral management bodies, such as fisheries management organizations.
  • Having safeguards in place to adequately assess, manage and prevent irreparable damage from new and expanding industries (such as fishing, oil and gas exploration, mining, and geoengineering) through consistent, comprehensive, globally accountable, effective and rigorous environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and management requirements.
  • Having the opportunity to go to a vote on key decisions, rather than relying solely on consensus that is slow and can mean one or several states hold progress to ransom.
  • Preventing countries from opting out of key obligations.
  • Having the finance and resources available to advance a sustainable and fair system of ocean governance as well as build capacity to facilitate implementation.
  • Setting up an equitable access and benefit sharing regime for marine genetic resources.

In these final days ahead of IGC Final (we need to stay optimistic!), we urge governments and leaders to ensure that the High Seas treaty is at top of the list of issues to be discussed during bilaterals with other nations and to use every high-level political opportunity to ensure finding common ground that benefits ocean life, rather than short-term interests. We are so close, and with all hands on deck we can make history together on the 3rd March!

To learn more about what ambition looks like click here.

Click to tweet and urge governments to find common ground and make history with an ambitious High Seas Treaty that benefits ocean life.