UN member states on Saturday after years of negotiations agreed to a text on the first international treaty to protect the high seas, a fragile and vital treasure that covers nearly half the planet.
“The ship has reached the shore,” conference chair Rena Lee announced at the UN headquarters in New York shortly before 9:30pm, to loud and lengthy applause from delegates.
The exact wording of the text was not immediately released, but activists hailed it as a breakthrough for the protection of biodiversity after more than 15 years of discussions.
The treaty is seen as essential to conserving 30 percent of the world’s land and ocean by 2030, as agreed by world governments in a historic accord signed in Montreal in December last year.
“This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, protecting nature and people can triumph over geopolitics,” Greenpeace Nordic Polar adviser Laura Meller said.
European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevicius yesterday called the treaty “a crucial step forward to preserve the marine life and biodiversity that are essential for us and the generations to come.”
Following two weeks of intense talks, including a marathon overnight session from Friday into Saturday, delegates finalized a text that cannot be significantly altered.
“There will be no reopening or discussions of substance,” Lee told negotiators.
The agreement is to be formally adopted once it has been vetted by lawyers and translated into the UN’s six official languages, said Lee, who is also the Singaporean ambassador for Oceans and Law of the Sea Issues.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres commended the delegates, a spokesperson said, adding that the agreement was a “victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health, now and for generations to come.”
The high seas begin at the border of countries’ exclusive economic zones, which extend up to 200 nautical miles (370km) from coastlines. They thus fall under the jurisdiction of no country.
Even though the high seas comprise more than 60 percent of the world’s oceans and nearly half the planet’s surface, they have long drawn far less attention than coastal waters and a few iconic species.
Ocean ecosystems create half the oxygen humans breathe and limit global warming by absorbing much of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, but they are threatened by climate change, pollution and overfishing. Only about 1 percent of the high seas are currently protected.
When the new treaty comes into force, it would allow the creation of marine protected areas in these international waters.
The treaty would also oblige countries to conduct environmental impact assessments of proposed activities on the high seas.
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