The UN High Seas Treaty: challenges and significance – Explained, pointwise

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The UN High Seas Treaty was agreed upon after more than ten years of negotiations during the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) held in New York. The treaty, once formally adopted and ratified, will be legally binding and will ensure the sustainable use of the world’s oceans outside national boundaries.  

What is the UN High Seas Treaty?

UN High Seas treaty
Source: ILSS

The High Seas Treaty is a new global treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources on the high seas. The high seas are open ocean areas that are outside the jurisdiction of any country. The treaty is also known as the agreement on “biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions” or BBNJ.  

The treaty has four main objectives. Such as a) demarcation of marine protected areas (MPAs), b) sustainable use of marine genetic resources and equitable sharing of benefits arising from them, c) initiation of the practice of environmental impact assessments for all major activities in the oceans, and d) capacity building and technology transfer.  

The High Seas Treaty will work as an implementation agreement under the UNCLOS, much like the Paris Agreement works under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  

What is the need for the High Seas Treaty?  

Read here: The UN High Seas Treaty – Explained, pointwise

What are the significant provisions of the High Seas Treaty?  

The High Seas Treaty
Source: Aljazeera

Regulation of Human Activities: The treaty seeks to regulate all human activities in the high seas to ensure that ocean resources, including biodiversity, are utilized in a sustainable manner and their benefits are shared equitably among countries.  

Protection of Biodiversity: The treaty seeks to protect the biodiversity of the high seas, which is home to about 2.2 million marine species and up to a trillion different kinds of microorganisms. The creation of marine protected areas (MPAs) will ensure that ocean systems, including biodiversity, are under stress, either due to human activities or climate change.  

Achieving global targets: The UN High Seas Treaty is very important for reaching the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework that have to do with the ocean. The treaty will make it possible to carry out the major decision made at the 15th Conference of Parties to the Biodiversity Convention in  2022. At that meeting, it was decided that marine protected zones should cover 30% (currently only 1.4%) of the ocean space on Earth by 2030.

Sustainable Use of Marine Genetic Resources: Oceans host diverse life forms, many of which can be useful for human beings in areas like drug development. The treaty seeks to ensure that any benefits arising out of the use of marine genetic resources, including monetary gains, are equitably shared amongst all. 

Environmental Impact Assessments: The treaty requires commercial or other activities that can have significant impacts on the marine ecosystem or can cause large-scale pollution in the oceans to undergo an environmental impact assessment to be done, and the results of this exercise have to be shared with the international community. 

Capacity Building and Technology Transfer: The treaty lays emphasis on capacity building and technology transfer, especially for small island states and landlocked nations, to meaningfully participate in the conservation efforts, or to take benefits from the useful exploitation of marine resources.  

Access- and benefit-sharing committee: It will be formed to frame guidelines for developing countries’ access to benefits from the commercialisation of resources extracted from the ocean.  

Rights of Indigenous people and local communities: marine resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction can only be accessed with their free, prior and informed consent or approval and involvement.  

What are the advantages of the High Seas Treaty?

Promotes cooperation: The High Seas Treaty promotes cooperation among nations in the use and management of the oceans and seas. It provides a legal framework that allows nations to work together to address common challenges and ensure the sustainable use of marine resources.  

Protects the marine environment: The treaty includes provisions that require nations to protect the marine environment from pollution and other harmful activities. This helps to ensure that the ocean remains a healthy and productive ecosystem.  

Provides legal certainty: The High Seas Treaty provides a clear and comprehensive legal framework for the use and management of the oceans and seas. It clarifies the rights and obligations of coastal states, flag states, and other actors in the marine environment, promoting legal certainty and reducing the likelihood of conflicts.  

Promotes economic development: The High Seas Treaty promotes economic development by establishing rules and principles for the sustainable use of marine resources. It provides a legal framework for the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources in the international seabed area and the conservation and management of living resources such as fish stocks.  

Resolves disputes: The treaty provides a mechanism for resolving disputes between nations over the use of the ocean and its resources. This helps to prevent conflicts between nations and promotes peaceful cooperation in the management of the ocean.  

Facilitates scientific research: The treaty recognizes the importance of scientific research in the management of the ocean and facilitates international cooperation in this area. It allows for the free exchange of scientific information and promotes the development of marine science and technology. 

What are the challenges in implementing the High Seas Treaty?

Fishing and industrial expansion: The treaty does not adequately address threats to ocean biodiversity posed by fishing and deep-sea mining.  

Social inclusivity: The treaty focuses on the fair and equitable sharing of genetic resources, but does not address the sharing of other resources.  

Enforcement: There is no identified international enforcement agency to monitor and enforce the treaty’s regulations, and no financial commitment has been negotiated.  

Negotiations: The treaty is the result of 20 years of negotiations, and the details of major provisions, including environmental impact assessments and mobilization of conservation funds, are still to be worked out. 

Unaddressed issues: The mechanisms for policing protected areas, the fate of heavily polluting projects, and dispute resolution remain unaddressed.  

Ratification: The process of ratifying the treaty is expected to be difficult and time-consuming, as seen with UNCLOS and the Kyoto Protocol.  

Conflicting interests: Conflicting interests among coastal states, flag states, and other actors can impede the effective implementation of the treaty’s provisions.  

What are the implications of the High Seas treaty for India?

Territorial waters: The treaty establishes a framework for the delineation of maritime boundaries and the extent of territorial waters. This has an effect on India’s territorial waters, especially when it comes to maritime disputes with Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.  

Political stability: By implementing vessel-monitoring systems throughout international fishing operations, the High Seas treaty could help secure fisheries and promote political stability.  

Marine resources: The treaty sets rules for the conservation and management of marine resources, such as fisheries and minerals. This has implications for India’s coastal and offshore fisheries and its exploration and exploitation of mineral resources in the international seabed area.  

Sustainable “Blue Economy”: By regulating national and international fishing efforts within and outside Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), the High Seas Treaty could help secure sustainable fisheries and a “Blue Economy”. 

Pollution in the ocean: The treaty has rules to stop, reduce, and control pollution in the ocean. This has an effect on India’s efforts to clean up pollution in the ocean, such as oil spills and dumping trash in the Indian Ocean. 

Security at sea: The treaty has rules about security at sea, including ways to stop piracy and other illegal activities at sea. This could affect India’s efforts to keep the seas in the Indian Ocean safe, like when it takes part in international naval operations.  

Scientific research: The treaty encourages scientific research in the marine environment and makes it legal for scientists to share information freely. This affects India’s marine science research and its ability to take part in international research projects.  

What should be done?

The treaty needs to be officially adopted and become effective once it is legally passed in at least 60 countries.  

To protect ocean life and ourselves, everyone across all sectors must work together to celebrate, implement and monitor the effectiveness of the new High Seas Treaty.   

Developed countries will be required to give yearly contributions to the special and voluntary funds created to assist developing countries in implementing the treaty.  

Although the agreement is a positive step forward, states and existing organizations need to take additional actions to ensure its success. 

Sources:  Indian Express (Article 1 and Article 2), The Hindu, Tribune, DTE and NPR

Syllabus: GS 2: International Relations – Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests.

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