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Negotiators from over 100 countries have finally completed a long-awaited U.N. treaty to protect the high seas. The agreement to conserve and ensure the sustainable use of ocean biodiversity was under discussion for 15 years and concluded after five rounds of protracted U.N.-led negotiations that ended in New York on February 26, 2023. Environmental groups are hailing this as a major breakthrough, as the legally binding pact will help reverse marine biodiversity losses and ensure sustainable development.
The high seas, which are areas outside of national jurisdiction, make up about two-thirds of the ocean and half of the planet’s surface. However, very little of the high seas is subject to any protection, with pollution, acidification, and overfishing posing a growing threat. The treaty is seen as a crucial component in global efforts to bring 30% of the world’s land and sea under protection by the end of the decade, a target known as “30 by 30” agreed in Montreal in December.
Secretary-General António Guterres has congratulated UN member countries for finalizing a text to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, calling it a “breakthrough” after nearly two decades of talks.
“This action is a victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health, now and for generations to come,” said the UN chief in a statement issued by his Spokesperson late Saturday evening just hours after the deal was struck at UN Headquarters in New York, where tough negotiations on the draft treaty have been under way for the past two weeks.
The latest round of negotiations, which began on February 20, saw economic interests as a major sticking point, with developing countries calling for a greater share of the spoils from the “blue economy,” including the transfer of technology. An agreement to share the benefits of “marine genetic resources” used in industries like biotechnology also remained an area of contention until the end, dragging out talks.
The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, hailed the agreement as a “historic moment.” Virginijus Sinkevicius, the European commissioner for the environment, oceans, and fisheries, said, “With the agreement on the UN High Seas Treaty, we take a crucial step forward to preserve the marine life and biodiversity that are essential for us and the generations to come.”
Greenpeace says that to meet the “30 by 30” target, 11 million square km (4.2 million square miles) of ocean need to be put under protection every year until 2030. Laura Meller, a Greenpeace oceans campaigner who attended the talks, said, “Countries must formally adopt the treaty and ratify it as quickly as possible to bring it into force, and then deliver the fully protected ocean sanctuaries our planet needs.”
Sweden, which was involved in the negotiations as the holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, said the agreement was the “most important international environmental deal” since the 2015 Paris Agreement on tackling climate change. Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said in a written statement, “It is also a victory for the UN and the global system that we have managed to deliver such an important agreement at a very challenging time.”
The treaty must now be formally adopted and ratified by countries as quickly as possible to bring it into force. While the clock is ticking to deliver the “30 by 30” target, this agreement is a significant step in preserving the marine life and biodiversity essential for our planet and future generations.
Reacting on Twitter, Csaba Kőrösi, President of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, also congratulated the delegates for reaching consensus on a global legal framework for the high seas.
“This is a massive success for multilateralism. An example of the transformation our world needs and the people we serve demand,” he added.
WORDS: Scientific Inquirer Staff.
IMAGE CREDIT: Tom Swinnen.