Friday, December 8, 2023

“Political leaders must get more involved in the High Seas Treaty”

Another missed meeting to finalize the Treaty on the High Seas, intended to better protect the oceans threatened by pollution, overfishing and climate change. After a fifth round of two-week negotiations in New York, UN member states decided to suspend the session last Friday.

A postponement which, according to most NGOs, threatens the vital objective of protecting 30% of the planet’s oceans by 2030. While some progress can be noted, countries are unable to agree on certain basic points. In particular the sharing of marine genetic resources – and ultimately economic resources – between rich and poor countries. Deciphering the progress and obstacles of these negotiations with Julien Rochette, director of the Ocean program at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI).

Despite expectations of a successful outcome, Treaty negotiations have once again been put on hold. What is your first feeling?

There is inevitably a disappointment because these negotiations started a few years ago already and, today, there is a real urgency to protect the oceans. And at the same time, it’s not a huge surprise. We realized this in particular when we received the draft of the treaty being drawn up. Many provisions were not finalized, with many options still possible and quite a few “brackets”, as we say in diplomatic jargon.

What were the main obstacles?

The issue of marine genetic resources is a first point of contention between countries. In particular, the sharing of benefits derived therefrom. The countries of the South wish to benefit from a form of compensation, when it allows the creation of products such as new drugs for example. These negotiations did not lead to an agreement on a mechanism determining the sharing of these potential financial revenues. The issue of intellectual property rights to maritime resources has also not been resolved.

The decision-making process on the launch of environmental impact studies is also on hold. There are two possible orientations today: either we leave the States free to do what they wish after the impact study, or we create a more collective and collaborative mechanism, through a conference of the parties (COP) which would ensure the control and the actions to be carried out by the States with regard to these studies.

Another broader blockage: the definition of the links between the future treaty and the existing maritime organizations, for example the regional fishing organizations. These structures are directly linked to the subject of marine protected areas and there will necessarily be a need for harmonization between their activities and the measures resulting from the treaty.

Despite everything, what progress has been made in this negotiation?

There are indeed a number of advances on the four main subjects of this treaty: marine genetic resources, marine protected areas, environmental impact studies, capacity building and technology transfer. For example, countries have agreed on how to identify areas of the high seas that can become marine protected areas. The States have also agreed to create a committee dedicated to strengthening exploration capacities.

According to NGOs, this umpteenth suspension of these negotiations threatens the objective of creating marine protected areas capable of covering 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. Is this too alarmist?

It is obvious that the longer we delay negotiating the treaty, the longer it will take to create these marine protected areas, which are effective tools for protecting marine biodiversity. Because after the adoption of the text, it will then have to enter into force, that the States take up the matter during a COP and, finally, issue proposals for marine protected areas. In view of all this, yes, there is urgency.

For many years, Russia has not shown particular ambitions for the protection of the marine environment.

Julien Rochette Director of the Ocean program at IDDRI

But we must try not to see the glass as half empty. The “High Seas Alliance” a coalition of NGOs involved in the process for years, highlighted the progress of this fifth round of negotiations.

Russia has been particularly blocking in the process. Why ?

For many years, Russia has not shown particular ambitions for the protection of the marine environment. This was already the case in previous treaty negotiation sessions. This is also the case in other diplomatic forums, such as the one dealing with the creation of marine protected areas in Antarctica. That’s why no one here expected an ambitious Russia anyway. The geopolitical context is also not conducive to an effort on these subjects.

Has the voice of small island countries – the most threatened by rising waters and the destruction of marine ecosystems – been taken into account in these negotiations?

Yes quite. They have delegations present and have a strong voice in the negotiations. Nevertheless, it is necessary to underline the significant cost that the logistics of this type of trip require for these countries (plane tickets, hotel costs, etc.). Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa, the Prime Minister of Samoa, recalled this in a statement. Another reason why this treaty must be concluded quickly.

What will be the decisive lever to finally enact this treaty?

Between now and the next negotiating session, there are high-level political deadlines such as the next United Nations General Assembly in mid-September. On this occasion, the Heads of State and Government must take greater ownership of the high seas dossier. This will allow future delegations to be better prepared following the negotiations.

This negotiation time seems long, but we must remember one thing: it is not easy to manage a common space that covers half the planet, the ocean, with the obligation of consensus in a turbulent geopolitical context. Despite this failure, it must once again be emphasized that these negotiations took place in a constructive spirit between countries. This will be very helpful in arriving at a final consensus.


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