What legal framework is possible for the “Wild West of the oceans”? To respond to this, the member states of the UN, who have been meeting since Monday in New York, have given themselves until August 26 to bring about an agreement on the regulation of international waters. At the heart of the ambitions, the protection of this ocean ecosystem, plagued by climate change, plastic pollution and overfishing.
Occupying almost half of the surface of the globe and 65% of the surface of the oceans, the high seas designates the maritime area which is located beyond the areas under national jurisdiction (territorial waters and EEZ), i.e. the maritime areas located more than 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the coast.
The high seas, an area beyond any legal framework
99% of these international waters have no legal protection, making them areas that belong to everyone and no one. This summit intends to regulate the exploitation and pollution of the high seas to ensure the preservation of marine biological diversity.
As a basis for the resumption of negotiations, the action-oriented political declaration adopted at the June Ocean Conference in Lisbon . It “sends a strong signal about the need for decisive and urgent action to improve the health, sustainable use and resilience of the oceans,” said the UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs.
A success that put the environmental issues related to the ocean emergency back at the center of the discussions. The high seas are the foundation of planetary balances by helping to regulate the climate. Ocean ecosystems produce 50% of the oxygen we breathe and contribute to the absorption of CO2 emitted by human activities.
The object of desire
But it is also the economic potential of this vast ocean that whets our appetites. The high seas are a treasure trove of living, genetic and mineral resources. In 2030, the profits generated at sea will be greater than those generated on land, predicts the OECD. The intensification of fishing, the production of renewable energy thanks to the power of the currents, the discovery of a still unknown biodiversity, the extraction of minerals sheltered in the seabed, are all potentialities of exploitation that the summit intends to regulate.
One of the major points of tension concerns precisely the creation of marine protected areas: delimited ocean sanctuaries, preserved from all exploitation and where biodiversity is restored. The NGO Greenpeace defends in particular the sovereignty of the future Conference of the Parties (a body bringing together the signatory States) for the creation and delimitation of these marine areas, without consulting the fisheries bodies: a first point of disagreement.
Forty years after the convention on the law of the sea in Montego Bay and after four unsuccessful sessions, the discussions that began in September 2018 are struggling to come to fruition. “Let’s try to reach a fair, balanced agreement, which can be implemented and which allows universal participation”, commented at the opening of the debates the president of the conference Rena Lee, calling for “maximum flexibility to achieve to consensus and to the finish line.
But the negotiations are not going to be less tough. At the heart of the talks, the sharing of genetic resources, particularly coveted by the pharmaceutical, chemical and cosmetic industries, divides the parties. Some developing countries, which do not necessarily have the financial means to implement exploitation campaigns on the high seas, do not want to see the discovery of new molecules, sources of potential economic fallout, escape them.