‘Missed opportunity’: No agreement in latest UN high seas talks

Negotiators have been trying for 15 years to agree on a legally binding text to address the multitude of issues facing international waters.

Two weeks of negotiations to finally agree a treaty to protect biodiversity in the high seas, have ended in failure.

The latest talks among United Nations member states came to an end on Friday with negotiators unable to thrash out a legally binding text to address the multitude of issues facing international waters – a zone that encompasses almost half the planet.

Formal and informal discussions have been continuing for some 15 years.

“Although we did make excellent progress, we still do need a little bit more time to progress towards the finish line,” AFP reported conference chair and UN oceans ambassador Rena Lee as saying.

It will now be up to the UN General Assembly to resume a fifth session of formal talks at a date still to be determined.

Many had hoped the latest session, which began on August 15 at the United Nations headquarters in New York, would finally produce an agreed text on “the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction,” or BBNJ for short.

“While it’s disappointing that the treaty wasn’t finalised during the past two weeks of negotiations, we remain encouraged by the progress that was made,” said Liz Karan with the NGO Pew Charitable Trusts, calling for a new session by the end of the year.

There had been hope that an agreement was near after world leaders at the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon in July promised to do everything in their power to save the world’s seas, although the closing statement at that event included few clear commitments.

The sharing of possible profits from the development of resources in international waters, remained a sensitive issue in the discussion in New York.

‘Missed opportunity’

Similar issues of equity arise in other international negotiations, such as on climate change, in which developing nations that feel outsized harm from global warming have tried in vain to get wealthier countries to help pay to offset those effects.

The high seas begin at the border of a nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which by international law reaches no more than 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from its coast, and beyond any state’s jurisdiction.

Sixty percent of the world’s oceans fall under this category.

Healthy marine ecosystems are crucial to the future of humanity, particularly to limit global warming, yet only one percent of international waters are protected.

One of the key pillars of an eventual BBNJ treaty is to allow the creation of marine protected areas, which many nations hope will cover 30 percent of the Earth’s ocean by 2030.

“Without establishing protections in this vast area, we will not be able to meet our ambitious and necessary 30 by 30 goal,” US State Department official Maxine Burkett said at an earlier press conference.

But delegations still disagree on the process for creating these protected areas, as well as on how to implement a requirement for environmental impact assessments before new activity on the high seas.

“What a missed opportunity …”, tweeted Klaudija Cremers, a researcher at the IDDRI think-tank, which, like multiple other NGOs, has a seat with observer status at the negotiations.

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