The United Nation’s Historic ‘High-Seas’ Treaty

By: Colsen Centner

March 30, 2023

On March 4, 2023, member countries of the United Nations made history by agreeing to the first ever treaty protecting the world’s oceans that lie outside of national boundaries. While some may argue that this treaty is a historic accomplishment that should be celebrated, the greater marine biologist community believes it has been a long time coming.

During the UN’s negotiation, there were many points during which it seemed like a final impasse was reached. Steps to formally protect our oceans began in 2004, when the United Nations set up an ad hoc group with the goal of strengthening the world’s ocean protection programs. This effort didn’t lead to a formal agreement or resolution until 2015, with negotiations taking more than three more years to begin. During the almost two decades that it took to pass this treaty, many marine biologists and stake holders including Liz Karan, the oceans project director at the Pew Charitable Trusts, believed that reaching an agreement was far from a foregone conclusion.

Over recent years, the use of international waters has come under fire for causing an ever-increasing risk of extinction rate for over 1,550 marine animals and plants. Additionally, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (“IUCN”) has added more than 17,900 marine animals to their red list, which is used to evaluate and recognize the extinction risk of tens of thousands of species. While some of these species are being overfished for their value as seafood or in drugs, almost half of the threatened species are being affected by climate change and increased carbon dioxide in our oceans. This drives up ocean surface temperatures and increases the stress on coastal and marine ecosystems. Not only have these increased temperatures led to the extinction of many species in polar regions, but they also make it nearly impossible for marine species like coral to bounce back from disease or bleaching events.

Until now, only 1% of international waters, which make up two-thirds of the world’s oceans, were protected. However, with the signing of the high-seas treaty nearly 200 countries will now be legally bound to protect marine life in international waters. It’s important to note that the United Nation’s decision to deem this pact a treaty as opposed to merely an agreement is of legal significance. Being a treaty as opposed to an agreement, it is legally binding on any country that signs it, according to international law.

Substantively, the treaty sets forth the idea that the protected area should be considered a “common heritage of humankind” which shall equally benefit all signatories. This was an important addition to the treaty as historically, countries with a greater scientific research capacity were able to state claim over various marine resources. On the contrary, the high-seas treaty confirms “no State shall clam or exercise sovereignty or sovereign rights over marine genetic resources,” which consist of marine plant, animal microbial or other origin that could recognize actual or potential value. Instead, both non-monetary and monetary benefits will be shared under the treaty, in addition to more developed countries setting up an initial upfront fund to help the treaty achieve its’ goals. This includes a nearly €820 million euro donation from the EU.

While the high-seas treaty promotes the philosophies of profit sharing and equality, there is one area in which each signatory remains an individual. Should any damage be down to the high-seas, restoration will be enforced based on a polluter pays principle. Essentially, the treaty encourages marine exploration, but only when it is guided by precautionary and ecosystem friendly approaches. The goal is that, because the treaty is legally binding on all of its signatories, any negative effects recognized by the high-seas or its’ marine life will be, at the very least, counteracted by restitutionary measures.

Countries who are not signatories to the high-seas treaty obviously do not have to play by the polluter pays principle. For this reason, some critics suggest the treaty will not be effective in slowing down the destruction of the ocean’s ecosystem. They argue that all it takes is one bad apple to negate the many positive strides taken by the majority. While these critics may have a point, they are yet again overlooking the magnitude of this historic treaty. No one is claiming that the high-seas treaty is going to solve the ocean’s overfishing or carbon dioxide crises on its’ own. Instead, they are acknowledging that the UN is taking momentous steps toward its’ goal of protecting at least one third of the sea by 2030.

In conclusion, its’ tough to undersell the true international importance of the UN’s high-seas treaty. While far from a complete solution, the high-seas treaty presents an important step forward in helping preserve our oceans and greater world for generations to come.  

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