Historic High Seas Treaty signed to protect the world’s oceans

It has taken 15 years of negotiations but the world’s governments have finally reached an agreement to protect the oceans and the high seas.

  • After extremely lengthy negotiations that lasted 15 years, the world’s governments reached an agreement on a Treaty to protect the high seas.
  • The high seas constitute the portion of the world’s oceans that lie beyond all national jurisdictions.
  • Many observers see the signing of the Treaty as a historic turning point.

After more than fifteen years of debate, delays, and negotiations, the member countries of the United Nations reached a consensus for the adoption of a treaty to protect the high seas. The agreement came on Saturday, 4 March and represents a historic turning point: it is the first document that aims to protect these parts of the oceans outside national jurisdictions from the many threats that undermine the conservation of ecosystems that are vital for biodiversity and, consequently, for the whole of humanity.

The high seas cover more than half of Earth’s surface

For many years, the high seas have been ignored from the perspective of efforts to conserve nature. However, they make up approximately half of the planet’s area. Most importantly, they are responsible for the absorption of a gigantic portion of CO2 emissions generated by human activities, contributing significantly to limiting global warming and the resulting climate change. The term “high seas” refers to those areas located beyond countries’ “exclusive economic zones”, which can extend up to a maximum of 370 kilometres from the coastline.

Therefore, the difficulty was also linked to the fact that these are not territorial waters, nor are they subject to economic exclusivity. This means that they are beyond the jurisdiction of any individual nation.

15 years of discussions and 4 of formal negotiations

The talks were held at the United Nations headquarters in New York and ended, after two weeks of intense sessions, with a long ovation by the delegates. For them, the agreement being reached represents the end of a long journey: formal negotiations under the aegis of the UN, which followed talks between countries, lasted for four years. Two previous sessions had been billed as “conclusive” but ended without an agreement.

high seas
The world’s oceans will have greater protection thanks to the High Seas Treaty © Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash

Although an agreement has now been reached, the text nevertheless still has to be formally adopted. This will happen after the United Nations legal departments have analysed the document and after it has been translated into the UN’s six official languages. In any case, the president of the conference responsible for its approval, Rena Lee, has given assurances that the High Seas Treaty can no longer undergo any substantial change,

António Guterres: “A victory for multilateralism”

The exact content of the text has not yet been published, but it has been widely noted that it will be vital in the implementation of the 30×30 principle, which aims to protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the agreement “a victory for multilateralism and the global efforts to combat the destructive practices that threaten the health of our oceans, today and for the next generations.”

According to Greenpeace Nordic activist Laura Meller, the signing marked a “historic day for the protection of the high seas. A sign that, in a divided world, the protection of nature and people can triumph over geopolitics.” European Union Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius also hailed the treaty as marking a “historic moment”.

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