UN High Seas Treaty Negotiations: A Worthwhile Marathon

By Eden Charles and Gina Torry

Governments have gathered at the United Nations in New York over the last two weeks to finalize a treaty to regulate and conserve resources in “Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction”, commonly referred to as the High Seas. 

The High Seas cover 49% of the Earth’s surface and provide critical ecosystem services, from fisheries to climate regulation. However, only 1.2% of the High Seas, our global commons, have been protected – putting biodiversity and the security of our planet at risk.

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called the climate crisis a red alert for humanity. He has called for the active protection of our global ocean, as a cornerstone of the safe space in which life thrives on our planet. 

This treaty process is arguably one of the most important international negotiations ever undertaken.

The covid-19 pandemic, however, might have been its death knell. Historically, these kinds of multilateral discussions are accomplished in person. 

However, during the two-and-half-year hiatus from the official negotiations, over 90 governments along with leading marine scientists and ocean experts came together on a virtual platform – experimentally – to continue to make progress through informal intersessional dialogue on substantive areas covered by the draft treaty. 

The initiative, co-hosted by the governments of Belgium, Monaco and Costa Rica in collaboration with the International Center for Dialogue and Peacebuilding and the High Seas Alliance, has kept the momentum going between the official negotiation sessions. 

The extraordinary will of governments and experts to meet virtually almost every month since April 2020 to work towards closer understanding of each other’s positions and challenging substantive aspects of the draft treaty – should not be discounted. It is, rather, a reason for hope and inspiration during these uncertain and troubled times. 

The first official UN negotiation session since the pandemic took place in March of this year. It was met with sensational, attention-grabbing media headlines claiming that the talks had “collapsed” and accusations that states were “dragging out talks”. This was a false alarm.

The talks in March – did not “collapse”. It was the first time in over two years that states were able to meet in person to negotiate the text itself. It must be remembered that robust agreements on complex issues at the multilateral level take time. 

While there are legitimate concerns with ongoing and increasing ocean degradation, biodiversity loss and the deleterious effects of climate change being felt in diverse areas of the globe, solving these problems effectively will require a strong legally binding agreement. Not one that is not fit for purpose, and lacks the design, content and language to be implemented effectively. 

There are eager, enthusiastic calls to end the negotiations, and adopt an agreement in August: some caution must be emphasized as a weak, unimplementable agreement rushed into by pressure, panic and fatigue is no victory at all. 

Haste makes waste. 

These complex negotiations are of existential consequence to food systems and a stable climate — as well as the viability of international law.

View of midtown Manhattan from United Nations Headquarters, August 2022.

While much of the world is off enjoying summer days, these government representatives and civil society experts at the UN in New York will continue their hard work to make progress over the next week. 

Marathons are difficult because they require perseverance for the best result. This treaty process is a marathon. If there are major gaps in this treaty, humanity will be very far away from achieving the ocean governance urgently needed to ensure resources are shared sustainably and over half of our planet is protected.

Eden Charles is former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary and Deputy Permanent Representative of Trinidad and Tobago to the United Nations. He served as the first Chairman of the preparatory committee for the negotiation of the “BBNJ” agreement. He is currently the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the International Seabed Authority for the Enterprise and a Lecturer in Law at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. 

Gina Torry is Director of the International Center for Dialogue and Peacebuilding and leads the informal intersessional Track 1.5 High Seas Treaty Dialogues.

The featured image at the top of this article shows negotiations toward a High Seas Treaty at the 5th Intergovernmental Conference (IGC5) on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), United Nations Headquarters, August 2022.

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