Breakthrough for the protection of international waters

Breakthrough for the protection of international waters

The high seas can be better protected in the future. © katatonia82/ iStock

After long, tough negotiations, the United Nations agreed on a high seas agreement on March 4, 2023. This creates the legal framework for the desired protection of 30 percent of international waters and the deep sea by 2030. Among other things, it was decided that a three-quarters majority instead of consensus would be sufficient for new protected areas in the future. In addition, environmental impact assessments and compensation payments for the use of marine resources will be introduced for all activities on the high seas.

Most of the world’s oceans are international waters. These areas lie beyond the countries’ exclusive economic zones, which extend up to 370 kilometers off the coast – and have so far been a largely unlawful, hardly protected area. There are agreements and bodies for different parts of the world’s oceans, such as the Antarctic Treaty, or for special uses such as whaling or deep-sea mining. However, decisions in these bodies usually required a consensus of the member states, which gave individual countries the possibility of blocking in favor of their own interests. As a result, only about one percent of the high seas has been designated as a protected area.

Historical agreement

But that will change: In December 2022, at the UN Biodiversity Summit, it was decided that at least 30 percent of the high seas should be placed under protection by 2030. Without a binding agreement to protect the high seas, however, the chances of implementation were slim. Finally, after 20 years of negotiation and postponement, we have succeeded: At the conference on the protection of the high seas in New York, the member states of the UN agreed on the preliminary text of the treaty for the high seas agreement. The final text will now be formally revised and translated into the official languages. This is then followed by formal acceptance by the member states. However, there should no longer be any changes to the content or renegotiations, as the conference management announced.

The new High Seas Agreement thus creates the legal framework for the protection of the high seas and thus also the prerequisite for implementing the decision of December 2022. “This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that even in this divided world, conservation of nature and humans can triumph over geopolitics,” comments Greenpeace Nordic’s Laura Meller. “We very much welcome the fact that with this contract the establishment of protected areas on the high seas, the largest habitat on earth, can begin,” says Fabienne McLellan, executive director of the marine conservation organization OceanCare.

Environmental impact assessments and majority rule instead of consensus

The new agreement stipulates that in future there will be an annual conference of the contracting states, similar to climate protection or biodiversity, in which concrete measures for the protection and sustainable use of the high seas and the deep sea will be negotiated and decided. In the new agreement, the member states also commit to extensive reporting, which increases the transparency and traceability of measures and compliance with the rules. The decision that many decisions, including the designation of new protected areas, can no longer be made on the basis of consensus, but with a three-quarters majority, is also considered particularly important. “Such resolutions can no longer be blocked by one or two states, which has prevented progress in the designation of Antarctic marine protected areas for many years,” explains Stefan Hain from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research ( AWI) in Bremerhaven.

“Another important achievement is that under the new agreement, mandatory environmental impact assessments will be introduced for all activities that have a significant impact on the marine environment of the high seas,” says Hain. “This negotiation result leads to higher environmental protection standards and more concrete rules than those already contained in the UNCLOS.” Johannes Müller from Ocean Care takes a similar view: “Environmental impact assessments are one of the most effective levers in marine protection. Because effective marine protection requires strict management of transboundary pollution with globally binding rules to prevent the exploitation of the oceans.”

Compensation for use of marine resources

Another point that has been hotly debated until recently is compensation for the use of marine resources. This includes, for example, the extraction of mineral raw materials from the seabed, but also the research and use of biological and genetic resources, for example to obtain new medicinal substances. Because developing countries usually do not have the technology and means to use these resources, they should receive appropriate financial compensation. “The painstakingly negotiated compromise provides that after the agreement enters into force, an annual lump sum payment will be made by the industrialized countries, which will benefit the necessary capacity building of the developing countries for the purposes of the agreement,” said Hain. “Good support for the new agreement in the international community is extremely important for the long-term success of the new agreement.”

But the new high seas agreement is just the starting signal, the real work is only just beginning: “The implementation is often the Achilles heel of such new international agreements. Without proper implementation at international and national level, the formulations in the new agreement remain good intentions, but in reality little will change in terms of protecting the high seas,” emphasizes AWI researcher Hain. However, it is positive that the EU and some other UN members have already announced in advance that they will provide financial support for the implementation of the new agreement. “This creates the conditions for the new agreement not to become a paper tiger,” says Hain. “With the new agreement and the bodies that are to be set up under this agreement, there are now, for the first time, specific contact points and processes in which the protection of the high seas can be dealt with in a targeted manner – that is the greatest success for me.”

Source: High Seas Alliance, Science Media Center, OceanCare

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