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Landmark United Nations treaty to protect marine diversity in high seas


Negotiators from more than 100 countries agreed over the weekend to complete a treaty to designate a large portion of the world oceans as protected areas for marine life. The deal was struck at UN Headquarters in New York, where tough negotiations on the draft treaty had been under way for the past two weeks. 

“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 UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteras.  

The agreement reached by delegates of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, better known by its acronym BBNJ, is the culmination of UN-facilitated talks that began in 2004.  

Already being referred to as the ‘High Seas Treaty’, the legal framework would place 30 per cent – compared with 1.2% today – of the world’s oceans into protected areas, put more money into marine conservation, and covers access to and use of marine genetic resources. 

Through his spokesperson, Mr. Guterres said the treaty was crucial for addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.  

“The ship has reached the shore,” the U.N. conference president, Rena Lee, said after a marathon final day of talks.

The treaty is regarded as a crucial element 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 at Montreal’s climate summit in December.

It will enter into force once 60 countries have ratified it.

“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,” said Virginijus Sinkevicius, the European Union commissioner for the environment, oceans and fisheries.

 Greenpeace says 11 million square km (4.2 million square miles) of ocean needs to be put under protection every year until 2030 to meet the target

“The clock is still ticking to deliver 30 by 30. We have half a decade left, and we can’t be complacent.”

Greenpeace hailed the agreement as “a monumental win for ocean protection, and an important sign that multilateralism still works in an increasingly divided world.”

Dr. Laura Meller, Oceans Campaigner, Greenpeace Nordic, said from New York:
“This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, protecting nature and people can triumph over geopolitics. We praise countries for seeking compromises, putting aside differences and delivering a Treaty that will let us protect the oceans, build our resilience to climate change and safeguard the lives and livelihoods of billions of people.”

The High Ambition Coalition, which includes the EU, US and UK, and China were key players in brokering the deal. Both showed willingness to compromise in the final days of talks, and built coalitions instead of sowing division. Small Island States have shown leadership throughout the process, and the G77 group led the way in ensuring the Treaty can be put into practice in a fair and equitable way.

The fair sharing of monetary benefits from Marine Genetic Resources was a key sticking point. This was only resolved on the final day of talks. The section of the Treaty on Marine Protected Areas does away with broken consensus-based decision making which has failed to protect the oceans through existing regional bodies like the Antarctic Ocean Commission. While there are still major issues in the text, it is a workable Treaty that is a starting point for protecting 30% of the world’s oceans, Greenpeace commented.

(Dreamstime photo)