Discussions on a new high seas treaty centred today on which stakeholders — from civil society and indigenous peoples to coastal States and the private sector — should be invited to decide how to protect the biological diversity of the world’s oceans.
As the Intergovernmental Conference drafting the first‑ever legally binding instrument on marine biodiversity entered its fourth day of negotiations, representatives focused on the process of designating area‑based management tools and other measures, including marine protected areas. Among other things, they considered which entities should be included in consultations on and assessments of such tools, as well as whether decisions should ultimately be reached by consensus.
A broad discussion also emerged about which stakeholders — ranging from adjacent coastal States and “potentially affected States” to industry, civil society, the scientific community, indigenous peoples and local communities — should be entitled to submit proposals relating to area‑based management tools.
Many delegates advocated for States parties to hold sole responsibility for making these decisions. Japan’s representative said that States parties are responsible for enacting administrative, legal and budgetary measures, and therefore should be the sole entities entitled to submit proposals.
In a similar vein, Togo’s delegate agreed with a suggestion to limit the submission of proposals to States parties. Also agreeing, China’s representative said that all submissions should be evaluated by a scientific body before resubmission to the decision‑making body for review.
The representative of the United States said that his delegation would like to better understand how entities other than countries would be able to submit proposals. For example, civil society members could work with States to incorporate their views, with the latter making formal submissions.
Elaborating on that point, Argentina’s representative, speaking on behalf of like‑minded Latin American countries, said members favour an indicative list of elements, calling for an inclusive and transparent consultation and assessment process in which States parties play a fundamental role. While the notion of consensus is desirable, it could nonetheless lead to gridlock, he cautioned.
Delegates expressed various positions on that notion, with the Russian Federation’s representative emphasizing that his delegation will only accept decisions reached by consensus. Meanwhile, he described marine protected areas as the most intrusive type of area‑based management tool and stressed that they must always be time‑bound. Turkey’s delegate also expressed support for a consensus‑based decision‑making process, while proposing the merging of identification and designation processes.
The representative of Belize, speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), said that of the proposed options for a consultation and assessment process, her delegation prefers a broad list of actors not limited to States parties. The agreement should allow for joint submissions, including by indigenous communities, she said, adding that the consultation period should be flexible to accommodate the special circumstances of small island developing States. She also rejected the idea of granting veto power to any State, emphasizing that global standards should be applied universally.
The representative of the Federated States of Micronesia, speaking on behalf of the Pacific Small Island Developing States, cautioned against including too many criteria in the designation process. After much brainstorming, he noted, members of the group decided that only four core elements are necessary: a spatial description; an objective; an analysis of the activities taking place in the space; and a management plan. Regarding the decision‑making process, he emphasized the importance of consensus while stating that his delegation will not support a consensus‑only process.
Switzerland’s representative, while expressing support for a broad, transparent consultation process, called more generally for a better balance between area‑based management tools and marine protected areas in the draft text. Echoing that viewpoint, Norway’s representative outlined his delegation’s vision of a submission process by which any proposal would be posted online for a “public hearing”. Targeted consultations would follow, he said, adding that proposals would then be revised based on feedback and presented again at the next Conference of States Parties. Underlining the importance of including already existing mechanisms in the new treaty, he said it would be unwise to include new elements that would hobble already functioning instruments.
The observer for the Holy See emphasized that all area‑based management tools “will not be equal”, adding that decision‑making on measures other than marine protected areas would be more appropriately housed in regional bodies. Turning more broadly to the draft document, she called for more attention to the health of oceans; greater efforts to reconcile definitions of “biologically significant ecosystems”; better and more standardized data collection; and the inclusion of foundational text to ground future discussions of technology transfers.
In the afternoon, delegates discussed the designation process with specific references to consultations and assessments of the proposals and decision‑making. They also exchanged views on area‑based management tools and the relationship to measures under relevant instruments, frameworks and bodies.
The representative of the Republic of Korea said the new instrument should be something that informs and supports existing regional bodies, rather than something that replaces or marginalizes them. Given the significant interest of civil society with regard to area‑based management tools, his delegation would support mechanisms for consultations with stakeholders such as civil society, the scientific community and the private sector.
More broadly, Australia’s delegate expressed support for the ability of proposals to be submitted under the process contained in this instrument. Meanwhile, Thailand’s representative emphasized the importance of inclusive and transparent consultations, suggesting that a modality is implemented to engage relevant stakeholders, especially with the States concerned.
Referring to the decision‑making process, the representative of Ecuador said existing legal frameworks that already sufficiently govern high seas activities, such as maritime transport and fishing, must be considered when adopting decisions on the management tools based on geographical areas. In addition, the balance between sustainable use and conservation is a key premise in related discussions.
The representative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources said strictly protected areas are an essential part of seascapes and can be supported in a variety of ways, including by designating different zones within such an area.
Delegates also discussed the issue of indigenous knowledge. The representative of the International Indian Treaty Council endorsed the position of small island developing States in terms of the participation of indigenous peoples and indigenous knowledge in this negotiating process. Indigenous peoples have a profound relationship with nature that is based on empathy, consent and reciprocity, he said, noting that much of the world’s remaining biodiversity is on indigenous territories. As such, traditional, indigenous knowledge is very relevant to this process. Indeed, indigenous knowledge, working together with science, has the power to protect biodiversity and fight climate change.
Turning to several other concerns, delegates, including the observer for the State of Palestine, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, reaffirmed that cooperation between relevant instruments with regard to area‑based management tools should be enhanced. The representative of Canada said there is a fair amount of duplication in the text and reducing this will help to reduce its length.
Also participating were representatives of Iceland, New Zealand, India, Monaco, Singapore, Philippines, Tonga, Eritrea, Seychelles, Palau, Samoa and Algeria (on behalf of the African Group). An observer for the European Union also spoke.
In addition, the following representatives of non‑governmental organizations participated in discussions: Greenpeace (on behalf of the High Seas Alliance), International Cable Protection Committee, International Council of Environmental Law and OceanCare.
The Intergovernmental Conference will meet again at 10 a.m. on Friday, 29 March, to continue its work.