High Seas: Nations are still far from an agreement at the UN

© Céline Bellanger / Fondation Tara Océan

By André Abreu, Director of International Relations, Tara Ocean Foundation

After two weeks of intense discussions at the UN Conference on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdictions (High Seas), negotiating delegates and experts left without having made much progress. Provided with a basic text – the “draft zero” – which has been on the table since June 2019, delegation members and observers debated the articles of the future treaty, line by line, but without settling differences on essential points.

With the ecological crisis and the climate emergency, the impacts on marine biodiversity are becoming more visible and measurable. A robust and binding treaty to protect biodiversity in the high seas is essential and will be a fundamental step towards ensuring a healthy ocean for future generations.

Begun in 2018, discussions on governance of the high seas are regularly monitored by the Tara Ocean Foundation. At the end of this third session of the Conference, which was held in New York from August 19 to 30, 2019, it is clear that there are still some obstacles on essential issues such as the status of marine genetic resources collected in the high seas or the level of funding to reinforce the capacity of developing countries.

Differences also persist on a possible mechanism for sharing benefits from these resources or on the means of managing the future Marine Protected Areas in the high seas.

A final session is scheduled for the end of March 2020, but the need for a new round of negotiations is already being discussed in the corridors, even if the official 2020 deadline is for the moment maintained.

Couleur bleue Méditerranée© Maarten Stok / Tara Ocean Foundation

Nonetheless, we do hail progress on certain points, particularly on the governance of the future regime, with consensus on the establishment of a Conference of Parties (COP) and almost unanimous agreement on the need for a robust scientific council. The future regime will therefore probably have an executive body with COPs, with a secretariat for management and a scientific advisory body for various deliberations. Convergence was also found on the establishment of a clearing house to centralize information, notifications and reports on research activities in the high seas. The possibility of a voluntary fund open to the private sector was also well received by almost all delegations.

Despite these few advances, it is clear that time is running out and that the two weeks planned for the last session at the end of March 2020 will probably not be enough to eliminate all disagreements. A few optimistic delegates recalled that one of the options on the table was to leave difficult technical decisions and issues to the COP, and that with intermediate workshops and an additional session in the second half of the year, the treaty could be approved by the end of 2020. Among the NGOs following the negotiation, some push for the deadline set for next March and others warn against a hasty agreement that would be neither ambitious nor universal.

1- Tara devant la Statue de la liberte_Celine Bellanger_Tara Expeditions Foundation_COPY© Céline Bellanger / Tara Ocean Foundation

For the Tara Ocean Foundation, this negotiation is the most important one under way for the Ocean and will have a very strong impact – positive or negative – on scientific research on the high seas. According to experts and scientists associated with Tara, it is essential to seize this opportunity to further develop scientific cooperation on the high seas and avoid a bureaucratic and expensive regime which would hinder research on marine ecosystems.

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