Until now, the high seas were considered a largely lawless area, but that could now change. The United Nations High Seas Agreement, which was passed in June, was officially signed by 75 states this week. The treaty therefore “only” needs to be ratified in the individual countries and is therefore closer to implementation than ever before. However, environmental organizations continue to urge urgency to protect the marine ecosystem and its inhabitants from additional damage.
More than two-thirds of the ocean lies far from national economic zones and jurisdiction. They are therefore considered to be largely lawless and hardly protected areas. Currently only around one percent of the high seas are designated as protected areas. To change that, the United Nations has been working on an internationally binding high seas treaty for more than two decades. In March 2023, the international community was finally able to agree on an official treaty text and then formally accepted the agreement in mid-June.
Protection of the high seas is getting closer
The next important step towards the entry into force of the treaty took place this week. Since September 20th, member states have had the opportunity to officially sign the agreement. 75 of them have already taken advantage of this opportunity. The signature is considered a formality that signals that governments are ready to bindingly accept the high seas treaty as part of their national procedures. Only after this step can concrete measures to implement the contract be decided and come into force. The United Nations estimates that all of this could take a few years and that only then will the oceans notice their new protected status.
The World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) interprets the signing as a “strong signal that the world is ready to work together and move quickly from agreement to action to achieve a nature-friendly future.” Nevertheless, the nature conservation organization calls for the current momentum to be maintained and expanded so that the ocean can benefit from the new treaty as soon as possible. “There is still a lot to do before the real work of implementation can begin,” says Jessica Battle from the WWF.
That's in the contract
The High Seas Treaty provides, among other things, to facilitate the establishment of marine protected areas on the high seas and thus protect them from human interference. Previously, this would have been theoretically possible, but only if every state without exception had agreed to it. With the new treaty, a three-quarters majority is enough, meaning that individual states can no longer block decisions out of self-interest. In addition, there will be a conference of the parties every year in the future to negotiate and decide on concrete measures to protect the high and deep seas. In order to ensure that states adhere to the agreements, they commit to transparency and comprehensive reporting on the measures implemented.
The treaty also provides for compensation for the use of marine resources. This means that in the future, industrialized countries will have to share the profits that they derive from the oceans thanks to modern technology with developing countries. This applies, for example, to the extraction of mineral raw materials from the seabed or the extraction of new medical active ingredients from marine organisms. In practice, financial compensation is likely to take the form of an annual lump sum payment.
Source: United Nations, WWF, High Seas Alliance