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“Hopeful”: Historic U.N. High Seas Treaty Will Protect 30% of World’s Oceans from Biodiversity Loss

Written by on 07/03/2023


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at how nearly 200 countries have agreed to protect biodiversity in the world’s oceans. The historic United Nations high seas treaty is a legally binding pact that could help reverse marine biodiversity loss by addressing pollution, acidification and overfishing. It was agreed to at a United Nations conference Saturday.

RENA LEE: Good evening-ish, ladies and gentlemen. The ship has reached the shore.

AMY GOODMAN: The historic agreement caps nearly two decades of efforts by conservation groups and seeks to establish marine protected areas covering 30% of the world’s seas by 2030 to protect ocean biodiversity. Environmentalists hailed the treaty’s passage as a major milestone. Greenpeace’s ocean campaigner Laura Meller called for the treaty to be ratified as quickly as possible to, quote, “deliver the fully protected ocean sanctuaries our planet needs,” she said. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature said its adoption, quote, “closes essential gaps in international law and offers a framework for governments to work together to protect global ocean heath, climate resilience, and the socioeconomic wellbeing and food security of billions of people.”

For more, we’re joined by Minna Epps, a marine biologist and director of the Ocean Team at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. She participated in the U.N. negotiations on the high seas treaty. She’s joining us now from Geneva, Switzerland.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Minna Epps. Talk about the significance of this long-negotiated treaty, what it does accomplish and what it doesn’t.

MINNA EPPS: So, hi. Yes. Good morning to you all. And I’m very pleased to be here.

It is indeed a historical milestone, and it’s certainly good news for all our ocean defenders out there. So, I think it’s been long overdue, as you said. So, this treaty has been negotiated for the past five years but, as you said, been in discussion for a very long time. And I think that our climate, our world has changed quite a lot since, in terms of the importance of the ocean, and its benefits and services has really increased on the public but also political agenda. So I think that the momentum was really right. And if we wouldn’t have agreed now, then it would have been, you know, a part failure to kind of protect our ocean, which is so vital to us. So, we are increasingly understanding the importance of the ocean in terms of climate change adaptation and mitigation but also to protect biodiversity.

And you alluded to the milestone commitment that was made by all states in Kunming-Montreal, Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, adopted in December, which really sets out to protect 30% not just of land and coastal areas, but of the ocean. And in order to achieve that, you know, we cannot ignore two-thirds of the ocean, which is the high seas, the areas beyond national jurisdiction. So, you mentioned that, you know, being able to establish marine protected area. So, today, there hasn’t been any kind of mechanism to establish, or a legal framework to establish marine protected areas in the high seas. But this treaty actually sets out to do much more than that. It’s really, in general, to conserve and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond national jurisdiction.

So, it really has been a package deal. It’s been a long road. And I have to still compliment all the negotiators, especially the last 40-hour marathon that they went through in order to reach an agreement, which, as we know, multilateralism is being challenged at the moment. And the fact that they were able to reach an agreement, I think, was just so welcome, and it was incredible.

So, in terms of what this treaty can do, offer, it’s basically a legal — a legal, internationally legally binding treaty under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, which was established about 40 years ago. So, this is really kind of looking to actively conserve and assure sustainable use. So it’s about — not just about establishing marine protected areas, but also to make sure that, you know, the ocean as a whole is and human activity is managed. So, we know what we need to do to protect or restore ocean health. We need to remove the threats, enhance recovery and build resilience. And, of course, one of the best ways to do that is really to invest in establishing a network of marine protected areas that can serve as multiple benefits. But it’s also about being able to conduct environmental impact assessments to ensure that, you know, any activity, human activity, does not harm, negatively harm, the marine environment. But also the other part of the package relates to access and benefit sharing of marine genetic resources, as well as the capacity building needed for marine technology — transfer of marine technology. So, that’s kind of essential then. But, of course, there’s a lot of crosscutting issues that need to be resolved, whether in terms of dispute settlement, the financial mechanism, etc., etc.

So, we are really hopeful. The text just came out a few hours ago, so we will see what the final details are. But whatever it is, it’s welcome, and we will have to work with it.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to comments from one of the Russian delegates at the conference who criticized the negotiating process.

RUSSIAN DELEGATE: Given the limited time available, it is impossible to properly review the draft we have just received. Large parts of this text are very much new to our delegation and represent parts of deals in which our delegation did not have a chance to participate. We are not prepared to limit our further engagement to technical amendments, and reserve our position broadly in this regard.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is a member of the Nicaraguan delegation.

NICARAGUAN DELEGATE: Furthermore, we want to express our concern regarding the method of work employed that did not guarantee the equality, equity, the balance and transparency during this process, with multiple parallel meetings, making it difficult for small delegations to participate, thus excluding some developing countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Minna Epps, if you could respond?

MINNA EPPS: OK. In terms of not having enough time, of course, time was not on their side, but I think that a lot of — I think the president handled it quite well. She was very conscious of being inclusive and listened to various parts. And I believe that some of these issues that were brought up by the Russian delegation or introduced new proposal, the president did remind that a lot of this text have been — the paragraphs have essentially stayed the same in the last few rounds of negotiations, so it wasn’t new text per se, and it was basically very late hour to introduce new proposals, which a few countries did rather towards the end. And these were typically countries that have been quite quiet in previous rounds, and as we were getting closer to seal a deal, if you like, basically spoke up more vocally and was trying to introduce new language, which was basically too late in the day. There was some time stalling activities, or basically taking the floor, and the president really wanted to move this forward. But I think everybody worked on the same premises in terms of having to review the text quite rapidly. I mean, at that stage, they had seen all the text, and there were still some changes, but they have been very familiar with the text. So, I think that time was short for all the delegates, but they managed to come through.

I would say that, in terms of the Nicaraguan comment on basically being unfair, I think that there were several, particularly the small island developing states, that, yes, they have smaller delegation, and I think that dividing it up to small groups, of course, it is a stretch if you have a smaller delegation. But I think that they were really trying to work constructively, having bilaterals, etc., so that it could be accommodated.

AMY GOODMAN: Minna Epps —

MINNA EPPS: So, I think that —

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to some of the key points, like the agreement to share marine genetic resources. What does that mean?

MINNA EPPS: Yes. It basically means that, you know, both now or also looking at the future, there might be potential new discoveries, as you wish, in terms of [inaudible], and they could be monetary and non-benefit sharing. But it’s basically how can you get access to these and also sharing the benefits, given that the high seas is the common heritage of humankind, so it kind of belongs to all of us. So, there was a lot of discussion and sticking points in terms of, you know, percentage of royalties and benefit sharing. And it really came down to equity, principles of equity. And I think that was the major sticking point of the negotiation towards the end, was really, you know, what in terms of the Global North and the Global South divide in terms of equality and fair and equitable access and benefit sharing.

AMY GOODMAN: And requiring environmental checks on deep sea mining?

MINNA EPPS: Yeah. So, in terms with the seabed floor, it’s actually managed by a different authority called the International Seabed Authority, which actually has a mandate to protect but also explore the deep sea. And there are now several — more than 30 exploration licenses pending that — well, they have been approved for exploration. It basically covers an area the size of Mongolia, and that could have very significant adverse environmental damage.

So, it’s also — there was particular language in this treaty that would actually dictate, you know, which presides over ours, so make sure that you cannot — the International Seabed Authority cannot issue both exploration and exploitation licenses if it will hamper marine diversity in the high seas. So it’s also how these two instruments will actually play out together, because it’s currently managed by a different authorization. So, I think what we really wanted here is a strong high seas treaty that can actually treat and manage the whole governance of the ocean, as the legal framework have been quite fragmented. So, the details —

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Epps, I wanted to — since we have so little time, for you to talk about why the oceans are so important when it comes to dealing with the climate, covering more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, absorbing 90% of the world’s excess heat. And also address the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans.

MINNA EPPS: Yeah. So, the ocean is on a major threat. And I think that we talk about plastic pollutions, etc., in the ocean, and a lot of things that happens at the high sea is basically out of sight and out of mind. But what has happened, what you were describing, is that, yes, the ocean have been providing these services as absorbing excessive CO2 emissions. But we don’t want the ocean to continue to provide those kind of services. We need to cut emissions rapidly in order for — because we have tampered so much with the chemistry of the ocean that I don’t think that, you know, general public or policymakers really realize the severe threat. And the U.N. secretary-general of the United Nations declared an ocean emergency last year. So it’s absolutely crucial.

And we think that protecting nature and the ocean is really our best ally to fight climate change and build that resilience, but also to help enhance recovery. But there is currently under negotiation, which has just started in Uruguay, to have a global plastic treaty, a global treaty, a plastic ban, which actually is being negotiated and hopefully can conclude faster than the high seas treaty, which will also have a very positive impact on our ocean to restore ocean health.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the implementation of this treaty? And how long did it actually take to negotiate?

MINNA EPPS: For the high seas treaty, it started in 2018. But actually before that, you will have preparatory public meeting. And I think it was decided in 2015 to go forward and have official rounds of negotiations. And they set out four rounds, two weeks each, was the estimated time to conclude. Now, we didn’t conclude in the fourth round, which was resumed after the global pandemic. And as we know, it was a pause of more than two years, almost two-and-a-half years. And the political climate had changed significantly, and we came back to a different world. Because we have to have in-person meeting when it comes to kind of international diplomacy. So, I think that a lot of governments have changed for the worse, for the better. But I think that was some of the delays, that it took time, that it wasn’t possible just to come back once and conclude.

And, you know, we really need to deliver on that promise of multilateralism. So, I think that that’s the reason why it took so long to agree. And, of course, it is a challenge to have 193 countries agreeing. But on the other hand, you know — and nobody is going to come out of this treaty — I mean, everybody is going to be happy that a conclusion has been reached, but not everybody is going to be content on what is in the actual treaty. But, of course, if somebody was 100% happy, that means that someone else would — another country or state will not be happy. So it really has been a compromise.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we thank you so much for being with us. I know you must be absolutely exhausted, having been at the U.N. all week in the vast, the major 40 hours of negotiations in the final push, and then flying back to Geneva, Switzerland, so we particularly thank you. Minna Epps is a marine biologist who participated at the U.N. negotiations on the high seas treaty, director of the Ocean Team at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Next up, we talk about Tennessee and its banning of gender-affirming healthcare for young people, becoming the latest state to target the trans community. We’ll talk to ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio. ACLU is challenging the law. Stay with us.



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