UN High Seas Negotiations Critical to Conserve Biodiversity

The United Nations building in New York is surrounded by flags of its member states
Credit: All photos credit: Lauren Kubiak

The Olympics wrapped up several weeks ago, but in eastern Manhattan in New York, there are still hundreds of countries gathered. It’s not athletic pursuits and competition bringing nations together, however; this time the cause for convening is the negotiation of a new treaty for the high seas – the waters beyond national jurisdiction that make up nearly two-thirds of the ocean.

Walk into the United Nations (UN) and one is greeted by flags, portraits of Secretary-Generals past, and sweeping views of the East River. But beyond the fanfare and exhibits on how the UN makes a difference in the world are offices, chambers, and conference rooms where information and positions are discussed and debated, and delegates, international governance organizations, and civil society work together to create international law.

For the past week and a half, my colleague Lisa Speer and I have been working with partner organizations and governments that make up the treaty Preparatory Committee, or PrepCom. We are working to move forward the process for putting in place an international legally binding treaty on the high seas.

The UN overlooks the East River
Credit: Photo credit: Lauren Kubiak

The law currently governing the high seas, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, lacks mechanisms to address critical components of biodiversity conservation such as the establishment of fully protected marine protected reserves. There are no uniform requirements for the assessment and management of activities that might cause significant environmental impacts, or rules governing how benefits from marine genetic resources are shared equitably. The new treaty will address these and other gaps and put in place a regime that conserves biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction.

So what’s this process like on the ground?

In the negotiating room, as a non-government organization (NGO) and civil society observer, I sit behind country delegates and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) among colleagues from the High Seas Alliance. After sitting down, I put on the earpiece and listen to the Chair, Ambassador Eden Charles of Trinidad and Tobago, set the stage for the negotiations and drive discussions forward. Mexico takes the floor to give an intervention and states their position. I don’t speak Spanish so I tune my earpiece to the English station, and one of the translators seated in glassed-in box seats delivers the translation through the tiny speaker. It’s a process that incorporates so many different people of so many nationalities.

We can deliver an intervention – speak on the floor – after the countries and IGOs have had the chance to speak on a certain topic. We then send our statement to UN PaperSmart to ensure that our position is included in the record of the discussions. At the end of this two week session of negotiations, we will break for several months to allow States to develop and refine their positions on different issues, then reconvene twice next year to continue negotiations. At the end of 2017, the PrepCom will report on their progress to the General Assembly. An agreement will hopefully be finalized in 2018.

The High Seas Alliance delivers an intervention on the need for a mechanism to establish fully protected marine reserves in areas beyond national jurisdiction
Credit: Lauren Kubiak

Friends of mine have questioned the UN process, noting that it is lengthy and inefficient. While it’s not perfect, when one considers that the outcome of the UN process is a legally binding international instrument governing human activities in nearly half the planet, it’s pretty incredible. It underscores the importance of the UN to bring together the parties to form policies in response to critical, globally significant environmental issues, and of strong leadership by the chair and the governments and organizations involved.

While there might be fewer full-twisting double layouts at the UN than at the Olympics, and the high seas negotiations are more of a marathon than a 100 meter sprint, the UN provides the only forum for countries to find a pathway forward on so many issues affecting the entire world. In my view, that’s a podium-worthy process.