The High Seas Treaty

Context: Two weeks ago, negotiators from almost every country in the world finalised a new global treaty meant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources in the high seas.

Once the treaty becomes international law after ratification by member countries, it will regulate all human activities in the high seas with the objective of ensuring that ocean resources, including biodiversity, are utilised in a sustainable manner, and their benefits are shared equitably among countries.

About High Seas

  • High seas are open ocean areas that are outside the jurisdiction of any country — the reason why the treaty is commonly known as the agreement on “biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions(BBNJ)”.
  • According to the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI), a network of global experts on oceans, high seas comprise 64 per cent of the ocean surface, and about 43 per cent of the Earth. 

Other legal framework to govern the activities in the oceans

  • United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) a 1982 agreement defined the rights and duties of countries in the oceans, the extent of ocean areas over which countries could claim sovereignty, and the legal status of marine resources. 
  • It also specified a set of general rules for a range of activities in the oceans including navigation, scientific research, and deep-sea mining.

About High Seas Treaty

  • It will work as an implementation agreement under the UNCLOS, much like the Paris Agreement works under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
  • The treaty established exclusive economic zones (EEZ), ocean areas up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the coastline, where a country would have exclusive rights overall economic resources such as fish, oil, minerals, and gas. 
  • The high seas are the areas beyond the EEZ of any country.

The High Seas Treaty has four main objectives

  • Demarcation of marine protected areas (MPAs), rather like there are protected forests or wildlife areas
  • Sustainable use of marine genetic resources and equitable sharing of benefits arising from them
  • Initiation of the practice of environmental impact assessments for all major activities in the oceans
  • Capacity building and technology transfer

 Marine Protected Areas(MPAs): Activities in these areas will be highly regulated, and conservation efforts similar to what happens in forest or wildlife zones, will be undertaken. 

About Marine Protected Areas(MPAs)
MPAs are where ocean systems, including biodiversity, are under stress, either due to human activities or climate change. These can be called the national parks or wildlife reserves of the oceans. Only about 1.44 per cent of high seas are currently protected, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Marine Genetic Resources: Oceans host very diverse life forms, many of which can be useful for human beings in areas like drug development. Genetic information from these organisms is already being extracted, and their benefits are being investigated. The treaty seeks to ensure that any benefits arising out of such efforts, including monetary gains, are free from strong intellectual property rights controls, and are equitably shared amongst all. The knowledge generated from such expeditions are also supposed to remain openly accessible to all.

Environment Impact Assessments: Under the provisions of the new treaty, commercial or other activities that can have significant impact on the marine ecosystem, or can cause large-scale pollution in the oceans, would require an environmental impact assessment to be done, and the results of this exercise have to be shared with the international community.

Capacity Building and Technology Transfer: The treaty lays a lot of emphasis on this, mainly because a large number of countries, especially small island states and landlocked nations, do not have the resources or the expertise to meaningfully participate in the conservation efforts, or to take benefits from the useful exploitation of marine resources. At the same time, the obligations put on them by the Treaty, to carry out environmental impact assessments for example, can be an additional burden.

How will the High Seas Treaty protect marine life?

  • The key measure is put the world’s international waters into protected areas (MPAs) – which will help achieve the global goal of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, which was agreed at the 2022 UN biodiversity conference.
  • Activity can occur in these areas but only “provided it is consistent with the conservation objectives” – meaning it doesn’t damage marine life. This could mean limiting fishing activities, shipping routes and exploration activities like deep-sea mining.

Draw backs of the Treaty

  • The treaty falls short of addressing some key threats that affect ocean biodiversity, notably fishing and industrial expansion, such as deep-seabed mining. 
  • Access- and benefit-sharing has always been a highly negotiated principle within any treaty, and this treaty requires fair and equitable sharing of genetic resources. However, it stops short of discussing the sharing of any other type of resource.
  • The treaty failed to address is to identify a suitable international enforcement agency that could monitor and enforce the regulations laid out by the treaty. Such an enforcement body would also require a financial commitment – another issue that has not been negotiated or included.
  • The process of ratification is not expected to be easy. It took UNCLOS 12 years to become international law because the necessary number of ratifications was not reached. The Kyoto Protocol, the precursor to the Paris Agreement, also took eight years to come into effect.

Clearly, the new ‘High Seas Treaty’ is just the beginning of a long and tedious process of regulating various aspects of human use in international oceans. Despite these challenges, there is growing momentum behind the treaty.

When will the treaty take effect?

  • Countries will need to meet again to formally adopt the agreement and then have plenty of work to do before the treaty can be implemented.
  • It will only enter” into force” once 60 countries have signed up and legally passed the legislation in their own countries.

Prelims PYQ(2015):

With reference to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which of the following statements is/are correct?

1. IUCN is an organ of the United Nations and CITES is an international agreement between governments.

2. IUCN runs thousands of field projects around the world to better manage natural environments.

3. CITES is legally binding on the States that have joined it, but this Convention does not take the place of national laws.

Select the correct answer thing the code given below.

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 and 3 only

(c) 1 and 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3

Ans. (b)

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