Countries address marine genetic resources at UN talks

26 June 2007 –

Several countries called for adopting a precautionary approach to the fragile marine environment as one week of talks on how best to manage and protect the world’s marine genetic resources opened at the United Nations.

At the annual informal consultations on Oceans and the Law of the Sea, countries also differed on whether the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provided an adequate framework, or whether new legal instruments were needed.

“Freedom on the high seas is not an excuse for irresponsibility on the high seas,” said Palau’s delegate, Stuart Beck, who called for international action to address fragile marine ecosystems.

Speaking on behalf of the group of developing countries (G-77) and China, Pakistan’s Farukh Amil said that while the Law of the Sea Convention recognized the sovereignty of coastal States on the exploration, management and exploitation of genetic marine resources, genetic resources beyond national jurisdiction were part of the common heritage of mankind.

Canada’s delegate, Renée Sauvé, said “the flow of benefits can be seriously impeded by an inappropriate framework or an absence of procedural certainty,” and Robert G. Aisi, Chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum Group, called for “effective regulatory approaches” on behalf of the 14-country group, which also includes Australia and New Zealand.

South Africa, Chile and India, among others, also called for a new legal regime for areas beyond national jurisdiction. This new regime, perhaps in the form of an implementing agreement of the Law of the Sea Convention, should guarantee environmental protection, the equitable and effective use of these resources, and the rights and needs of developing countries.

“Bioprospecting,” or research and development related to marine genetic resources, was a major point of discussion. Arun Kumar Rath, the representative of India, said that activities beyond areas of national jurisdiction “could put at risk delicate environments, and bioprospecting could be one of these activities.”

Jolger Martisen of Argentina said there was no reason for standards or norms that gave “unrestricted freedom to exploit resources beyond national jurisdiction” and called for specific standard on access to marine genetic resources allocating equitably the benefits deriving from their exploitation.

On the other hand, Masaya Sangawa of Japan said the Law of the Sea Convention guaranteed the right of all States to conduct research on marine genetic resources, including bioprospecting and exploitation. It was difficult to distinguish between research and bioprospecting, and research should be promoted both within and beyond national jurisdiction, without imposing “unnecessary regulations on bioprospecting.”

Representing the United States, Constance Arvis said the meeting should focus on resources within the area of national jurisdiction. Resources on the high seas were protected by the Law of the Sea convention, as well as by codes of conduct, and “we are unconvinced of the need of a new regime to protect these resources,” she said.

Marine genetic resources are increasingly utilized as the basis for drugs used against a host of diseases. Compounds derived from marine micro-organisms are being tested and used for the development of antioxidant, antivirals, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, anti-HIV, antibiotic, anti-cancer, anti-tuberculosis and anti-malarial drugs.

Marine micro-organisms also have great environmental value for their influence on the climate. Planktonic marine microalgae contribute between 80 to 90 per cent to the ocean’s productivity both in terms of carbon assimilation and oxygen generation.

The informal consultations will conclude on Friday, with the expected adoption of agreed elements feeding into the General Assembly’s debate on the issue.

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