UN to adopt historic high seas treaty to protect marine ecosystems

The United Nations has disclosed a plan to adopt the world’s first international treaty aimed at safeguarding the high seas, marking a significant milestone in environmental protection and the preservation of remote ecosystems crucial to humanity.

Liz Karan, from the NGO Pew Charitable Trusts, expressed her enthusiasm, stating, “It will be a tremendous achievement, which we have already celebrated with the finalization of the text in March. However, the adoption formalizes it and paves the way for the next steps.”

This groundbreaking treaty will establish a legal framework to extend comprehensive environmental safeguards to international waters, which account for over 60 percent of the Earth’s oceans. After more than 15 years of discussions, including four years of formal negotiations, UN member states reached an agreement on the treaty text in March following intense and protracted talks.

The finalized text has undergone thorough scrutiny by the UN’s legal experts and translators to ensure its consistency across the organization’s six official languages.

Scientists, emphasizing the importance of healthy oceans, noted in The Lancet journal that they are integral to human health, well-being, and survival. Oceans are responsible for producing most of the oxygen we breathe, mitigating climate change through CO2 absorption, and harboring diverse ecosystems, often at the microscopic level.

However, due to the vastness of international waters lying beyond the exclusive economic zones of individual nations, environmental protection efforts have largely focused on coastal areas and a few emblematic species, neglecting the “high seas.”

The treaty will introduce a critical mechanism to establish protected marine areas in international waters, aiming to address the current situation where only about one percent of the high seas benefit from conservation measures.

This treaty holds significant importance in achieving the target set by world governments in a separate historic accord reached in Montreal in December, which aims to protect 30 percent of the world’s oceans and lands by 2030.

Once adopted, the treaty, officially known as the “Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction” (BBNJ) treaty, will also require conducting environmental impact assessments for proposed activities in international waters. These activities, not specified in the text, could include fishing, maritime transport, deep-sea mining, or geo-engineering initiatives intended to combat global warming.

Moreover, the treaty establishes principles for the fair sharing of benefits derived from “marine genetic resources” (MGR) collected through scientific research in international waters.

This particular aspect caused challenges during the last-minute negotiations in March. Developing nations, often lacking resources to finance such expeditions, fought for equitable sharing rights to avoid being left behind in the potential commercialization of MGR, particularly by pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies in search of “miracle molecules.”

The treaty’s effectiveness will depend on how many countries decide to endorse it once adopted. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) believe that the threshold of 60 ratifications required for the treaty to enter into force is achievable, given the membership of approximately 50 countries in the High Ambition Coalition for the BBNJ, which strongly advocated for the treaty. This coalition includes countries from the European Union, Chile, Mexico, India, and Japan.

However, achieving universal adoption is a goal advocated by ocean conservationists, considering the United Nations has 193 member states. The High Seas Alliance emphasized the importance of swift ratification and implementation following adoption.

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