Ocean Treaty: unfinished business
The lengthy process to develop a treaty to protect oceans is stalled following August 2022 talks. Planned to finalise the agreement, negotiations instead broke up without consensus being reached, even though the treaty is supposed to be agreed by the year’s end. The need for it is as urgent as ever, as the oceans that cover most of the planet’s surface remain an area where international law is inadequate, enabling a great loss of marine life, imperilling livelihoods and causing growing environmental harm. Civil society continues to push for the treaty to be agreed as a key step towards limiting climate change and reversing environmental destruction.
Over 70 per cent of the earth’s surface is ocean and most of the waters are high seas – territory that falls outside national jurisdiction. Action to protect high seas is crucial for averting the worst of the climate crisis and protecting biodiversity. But the high seas remain an area left significantly neglected by international law. As a result, only 1.2 per cent of the world’s oceans are currently protected.
Environmental activists pinned hopes of changing that on a two-week negotiating session held in August, but they came away disappointed: the Oceans Treaty they have spent years campaigning for is yet to be agreed.
A cry for help
The most recent international agreement on ocean protection is the United Nations (UN) Convention of the Law of the Sea, signed in 1982 and in effect since 1994, although some states never ratified it – including the USA, the world’s greatest naval power. The convention established territorial boundaries and defined the area known as the high seas, where all countries are allowed to fish, navigate and do research. It created regulatory mechanisms to oversee activity in shared waters.
But in the decades since, it’s become clear this doesn’t go far enough. The health of oceans has fast deteriorated, including as a result of shipping, mining and industrial-scale fishing.
Research suggests that between 10 and 15 per cent of marine life is at risk of extinction. Over 14,000 marine species are included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, including marine mammals, corals and numerous types of fish. A vast genetic wealth living in the world’s oceans risks disappearing, much of it before it is even discovered. With it, rich sources of new, potentially lifesaving medicines may be gone forever.
People are also at risk. Millions depend on the ocean for their livelihoods, particularly in the global south. In countries such as Bangladesh, Ghana and Sri Lanka, fish provide half of people’s protein intake. The ocean also holds deep cultural significance for many people around the world, so its degradation comes with significant cultural loss.
Given its key role in mitigating the impacts of global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide, ocean health is key for overall planetary wellbeing. But ocean acidification, as increasing amounts of greenhouse gas sink into the water, threatens to accelerate environmental harm. The need for stronger global regulation is clear.
Voices from the frontline
Ellie Hooper works for Greenpeace Aotearoa, promoting environmental action in New Zealand.
If done right, one of the key things the Ocean Treaty could deliver is the creation of fully protected marine areas on the high seas. These areas would be off limits to destructive human activities such as industrial fishing and mining. At the moment there is no legal mechanism to create fully protected areas outside of national jurisdictions, which has become a real problem. The ocean is under threat from all sides and to protect it we need to take a holistic view tackling multiple risk factors.
Getting a strong treaty across the line would be nothing short of historic. Scientists tell us that to avoid the worst of the climate and biodiversity crisis we must protect at least a third of the world’s oceans by 2030. A strong treaty would give us the mechanism to do this. The ocean is a huge carbon sink and has absorbed a great deal of global warming to this point. It’s also home to amazing biodiversity, produces the oxygen we breathe, stabilises the climate and is a food source for millions around the world.
In short, keeping the ocean healthy is vital to our survival and the entire functioning of our blue planet. But more and more research shows it is in decline. To turn this around we need to step up and protect it by reducing the multiple pressures on the system.
Science shows that fully protected marine areas are one of the best tools we’ve got to help the ocean recover and thrive. When these are put in place in the right areas – places known to be high in biodiversity, migratory pathways or unique ecosystems – ocean health improves and marine life flourishes. This has positive impacts across the board, from the number of creatures in the sea to how well the ocean can absorb carbon.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Ellie. Read the full interview here.
A long road to the treaty
The need to protect the world’s oceans for future generations was apparent 15 years ago, when UN member states agreed to create a legally binding instrument for the conservation and sustainable development of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction – a high seas treaty, or an ocean treaty, as it’s commonly called.
But the process only picked up in 2017, when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution to convene an intergovernmental conference to hold formal negotiations towards the treaty, to be finalised by the end of 2022. The resolution was adopted by consensus and co-sponsored by 141 states, a sign of the wide support it enjoyed.
The proposed treaty seeks to establish marine protected areas in international waters. Many countries agree that such areas should encompass around 30 per cent of the world’s oceans, and that within them activities such as fishing, shipping and deep-sea mining should be strictly regulated.
The first two-week negotiating session took place in 2018, followed by two additional rounds of negotiations in 2019. The fourth and supposedly final session was due to take place in 2020 but was twice postponed due to the pandemic. When it was eventually held in March 2022, it failed to produce an agreement.
Environmentalists pointed the finger at states that purposefully caused delays or tried to get particular economic activities excluded. Such appeared to be the case with Russia and Iceland, among other states that called for the exclusion of fisheries.
A fifth session was held this August that again was supposed to be the final phase of negotiations. Activists again hoped that a strong legally binding document would result but again were disappointed.
The intergovernmental conference’s president remarked that the finish line was closer than ever but acknowledged it wouldn’t be possible to cross it just now. Negotiations stalled due to disagreements on fishing rights, profit from and sharing of marine genetic resources, the possibility of opening the Arctic up for exploration and the provision of funding and other resources to global south countries.
At an organisational level, the absence of high-level ministerial engagement may have played a part. A poorly conceived agenda allowed old issues to resurface, contributing to derailing the process.
The session was suspended so states would have more time to smooth out their differences. Civil society is demanding a resumed session as soon as possible, pushing to have the treaty adopted before the year’s end.
Voices from the frontline
John Paul Jose is an environmental and climate activist from India who serves as a youth ambassador of the High Seas Alliance, a civil society partnership urging the adoption of a treaty.
It has been 15 years since the negotiations started, but cooperation has been lacking regarding many aspects of the treaty. Differences would need to be resolved in between sessions, and a treaty should be finalised to include all the aspects where agreements have been reached, leaving space for future amendments as differences over more contested elements are subsequently resolved. And intergovernmental conferences should definitely happen more often.
One element being discussed is the equitable distribution among states of marine genetic resources, which are essential in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, agricultural and other industries. The current overemphasis on benefit sharing is an illusion, as we don’t know enough about such benefits, since much of the ocean is still unexplored. But it is a fact that 10 countries account for 71 per cent of global fishing and 98 per cent of patents of genetic codes of marine life in the high seas. Those few countries’ greed and unwillingness to share benefits and marine technology and knowledge, and the obvious concerns this creates among less powerful countries, are big reasons for the deadlock.
There is also a stalemate on defining criteria for environmental impact assessments and the implementation of marine protected areas. What is at stake here are the interests of deep-sea mining industries and industrial fisheries.
However, the treaty process has seen a lot of success in convening discussions and negotiations. As of now, more than 100 states are highly committed to backing the treaty as it stands and some, such as Costa Rica, are leading by example by pushing forward regionally, opening up additional avenues for conservation.
The treaty is likely to be finalised at the next session, so further efforts should be put into funding delegations from global south countries so they can be a stronger voice and bring more balance into negotiations.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with John Paul. Read the full interview here.
Civil society in action
Civil society has long campaigned for better ocean governance but doesn’t have a seat at the table. Treaty negotiation is a state-centred process. While some civil society organisations have observer status, most activists aren’t allowed to attend proceedings and don’t get to see key documents early enough.
Instead civil society has focused on building alliances with representatives of supportive states, working with them to bring ambitious proposals into the negotiations. At the same time civil society groups campaign to bring greater public pressure to bear on the process. They have come together in wide coalitions to advocate for the treaty, raise awareness, protest and gather support through online petitions to send a clear message to politicians. A Greenpeace petition received over 5.2 million signatures. At a later stage of the process, Greenpeace sent letters to governments urging them to send high-ranking officials to the talks.
Ahead of the March 2022 session, activists descended upon the One Ocean Summit in France to demand President Emmanuel Macron take action to protect oceans. During the first week of the August session, Greenpeace held a dance party near the conference site, UN headquarters in New York, to remind governments they were being watched.
But when negotiations stalled, the happy atmosphere dissipated. Activists from communities on the receiving end of the worst impacts of the ocean crisis spoke passionately about their realities.
As a final resolution in August appeared less likely, celebrities wrote an open letter to delegates, reminding them of the urgency and their obligations to produce a treaty by the end of the year. Disappointed but not discouraged, activists are now regrouping to push for action before the end of the year. The push remains on to protect at least 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030.
Time to decide
The UN hasn’t changed the 2022 deadline, and as far as environmental and climate activists are concerned, this is still the year of the Ocean Treaty.
Getting a strong treaty across the line would be nothing short of historic. Scientists tell us that to avoid the worst of the climate and biodiversity crisis we must protect at least a third of the world’s oceans by 2030.
No additional negotiating sessions are currently scheduled, and it isn’t clear whether an emergency session will be called. If it is, there’s no guarantee an agreement will be reached. Over 40 states have committed to signing an agreement by the deadline, but clearly this falls far short of the global coverage needed.
Campaigners are urging the adoption of a treaty based on current areas of agreement while pushing for more ambition by leaving the door open for amendments as agreements are reached on more contested issues following further negotiation. While powerful states are still taking a self-interested position over issues like fishing and genetic material, campaigners believe a final treaty is now only a relatively short distance from being reached.
Producing a treaty is important, but it’s also one step in a bigger process to arrest the disastrous advance of climate change and protect and steward the planet’s life and resources. Once agreed, the treaty needs to lead to action. Civil society will need to stay vigilant, pushing for the treaty’s implementation, holding states and the private sector to account and ensuring the treaty makes a difference.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
States should urgently commit to reconvening at the earliest opportunity to agree the Ocean Treaty.
States should engage with civil society campaigners and agree to take forward their proposals for the treaty.
A wider range of civil society, particularly from the global south, should join the campaign to advocate for the agreement of a treaty, and then for its ratification and implementation.
Cover photo by Reuters/Mike Segar via Gallo Images