UN member states finally agreed on Saturday on the first international treaty to protect the high seas, intended to counter threats to ecosystems vital to humanity.
“The ship has reached the shore,” conference president Rena Lee announced at UN headquarters in New York on Saturday shortly before 9:30 p.m. (02:30 GMT), to loud and prolonged applause from delegates.
After more than 15 years of discussions, including four years of formal negotiations, the third “last” session in New York was finally the right one, or almost.
Delegates finalized the text with its content now frozen in substance, but it will be formally adopted at a later date after it has been vetted by legal services and translated to be available in the six official UN languages.
The exact content of the text was not immediately published but activists hailed it as a watershed moment for biodiversity protection.
A “historic day”
“It’s a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world the protection of nature and people can triumph over geopolitics,” said Laura Meller of Greenpeace.
After two weeks of intense discussions, including a marathon session on Friday night to Saturday, delegates finalized a text that can no longer be significantly changed.
“There will be no reopening or substantive discussions” on this file, Ms. Lee told negotiators.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres congratulated delegates, hailing a “victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends that threaten the health of the oceans, today and for generations to come.” .
The European Union also welcomed this “crucial step to preserve the marine life and biodiversity which are essential for us and the generations to come”, through the voice of the European Commissioner for the Environment, Virginijus Sinkevicius, who s is said to be “very proud” of this result.
France, for its part, welcomed a “historic agreement”, which “opens the way to essential and unprecedented progress”, in a press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Marine protected areas
The high seas begin where the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of the States end, at a maximum of 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the coasts and are therefore not under the jurisdiction of any State.
Even if it represents more than 60% of the oceans and almost half of the planet, it has long been ignored in the environmental fight, to the benefit of coastal areas and a few emblematic species.
With the progress of science, proof has been made of the importance of protecting these oceans, teeming with an often microscopic biodiversity, which also provides half of the oxygen we breathe and limits global warming by absorbing important part of the CO2 emitted by human activities.
But the oceans are weakening, victims of these emissions (warming, acidification of the water, etc.), pollution of all kinds and overfishing.
So the new treaty, when it comes into force after it has been formally adopted, signed and then ratified by enough countries, will create marine protected areas in those international waters.
Only about 1% of the high seas is subject to conservation measures, and this emblematic tool is considered essential if we hope to protect 30% of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030, as committed to by the all the governments of the planet in December.
“High seas protected areas can play a vital role in building resilience to the effects of climate change,” said Liz Karan of the NGO Pew Charitable Trusts, who called the deal a “momentous achievement”.
The treaty on “the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction” also introduces the obligation to carry out environmental impact assessments of proposed activities on the high seas.
Finally, a highly sensitive chapter which crystallized tensions until the last minute, the principle of sharing the benefits of marine genetic resources collected on the high seas.
Developing countries that do not have the means to finance very expensive expeditions and research have fought not to be excluded from access to genetic marine resources and from sharing in the anticipated profits from the commercialization of these resources – which belong to no one – from whom pharmaceutical or cosmetic companies hope to derive miracle molecules.
As in other international forums, notably the climate negotiations, the debate ended up boiling down to a question of North-South equity, commented observers.
With an announcement seen as a gesture to strengthen North-South confidence, the European Union pledged, in New York, 40 million euros to facilitate the ratification of the treaty and its initial implementation.
Beyond that, it pledged to devote more than 800 million euros to the protection of the oceans in general for 2023 during the “Our Ocean” conference which ended on Friday in Panama.
In total, Panamanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Janaina Tewaney announced that “341 new commitments”, amounting to nearly 20 billion dollars – including nearly 6 billion from the United States – had been made during the this conference to protect the seas.