The UN moving forward: International Management of the High Seas

© Yann Arthus Bertrand Planet Ocean

From the 19th to the 23rd of August, about 250 delegates, professionals and experts met in New York in an attempt to move towards a consensus on the legal framework and agenda for negotiations concerning the High Seas. Tara Expeditions was present.

Brief review of the objectives established at Rio+20 (June 2012)

In the final text of the Rio+20 conference, negotiations on the management of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions were postponed for 2 years, with a compromise to reach an agreement at the 69th UN General Assembly in 2014. The sessions held last month on High Seas biodiversity were essential in defining the process and agenda of the “Biodiversity Beyond areas of National Jurisdiction (BBNJ).

Focus on negotiations

Patricia O’Brien, Under Secretary General for Legal Affairs and UN Advisor, opened the sessions on August 19 on behalf of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. She recalled the objectives of the final Rio+20 document, and reaffirmed the Secretary General’s personal commitment to the ocean. The 2 co-chairs of the High Seas Biodiversity Group, Palitha Kohona and Liesbeth Lijnzaad, also mentioned the Rio commitments and acknowledged the importance of the scientific workshops held in May 2013.

Country groups  and member countries then followed by presenting their positions and expectations for the week of negotiations. The European Union reaffirmed its position in favor of an agreement as soon as possible. Europe is driving this process, even if during the week the G77 (group which now counts 132 members of southern countries) took the lead on the proposal of a text recalling that the seabed, beyond the limits of national jurisdictions, also includes biological factors, and requires special attention to issues of training and technology transfer. Southern countries also focused on issues related to intellectual property rights of marine genetic resources and sharing of benefits arising from the exploitation of these resources. The Small Island Developing States (SIDS), represented by Papua New Guinea, stressed the importance of environmental impact assessments and the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs). Island countries also sought scientific research endorsement with enhanced technology transfer. Among the most “difficult? countries, the United States once again questioned the “legal applicability? of the agreement in the domain of genetic resource management.  The US also stressed the need to strengthen the implementation of existing commitments, and opposes the idea of ​​the High Seas as “mankind’s common heritage?.

NGOs excluded from the negotiating room

On the second day, a group of “friends of the chairs? was created, closed to NGOs and Intergovernmental Organizations (agencies). This caused great dismay among the experts, who were de facto excluded from the discussions. Large NGOs had mobilized considerable resources for the week, with experts, workshops and campaigns. A statement from the High Seas Alliance was released after the second closed session, indicating that the European countries had compromised the notion of transparency as defined in the Arrhus Convention.

French civil society was well-represented, with 2 side-event workshops during the week: Tara Expeditions in partnership with the UNESCO/Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission organized a workshop on international scientific cooperation and data-sharing between different scientific projects, and the IDDRI proposed a session on legal issues.

Negotiations are progressing slowly, but in the right direction 

After the first days marked by considerations of each group or country, negotiators gathered around a proposal presented by the G-77/China. Back in the plenary session, the co-chairman  presented a consensus text defining a procedure within the BBNJ working group to prepare the resolution that will be presented to the General Assembly. Here are some important points in the text :

• The term used to define the desired accord is “international instrument?, and not “agree? or “agreement?.
• This instrument will be legally binding, under the auspices of UNCLOS
• The BBNJ working group must meet 3 times during a week-long period: twice in the first half of 2014, and once again in early 2015.

In the following months, we will enter into the most important part of the negotiations. Specific issues of this legal instrument will be addressed, such as procedures envisaged for the management of marine genetic resources; defining a system of sharing profits from the exploitation of these resources; decisions about training and technology transfer; and defining rules governing fishing in the High Seas in conjunction with existing regional agreements.

Committed to the management of the High Seas, Tara Expeditions continues our signature campaign for “The Paris Appeal for the High Seas? and is participating in a convergence of civil society and scientists over the next year, so that an agreement may be reached among all UN member states.

André Abreu, Tara Expeditions International Relations

Click here to sign the Appeal.