We’re approaching a once in a generation opportunity for transformative change for the ocean – and we need to make it happen.
In 1967, Arvid Pardo delivered his landmark speech before the United Nations General Assembly urging countries to consider the resources of the ocean in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) as “the common heritage of mankind” and the need for international cooperation to protect the ocean for future generations.
Pardo’s compelling speech brought to light the importance of the ocean and laid the foundation for the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982, considered the “Constitution of the Ocean.” While the convention set up the ocean constitution, many of the rights it provides have been used while some of the responsibilities that go with them haven’t been fully respected.
Key among them: the responsibility to adequately protect the ocean’s immense and unique biodiversity. And UNCLOS also hasn’t kept pace with the rapid technological, scientific and legal developments of the past 30 years. This is specifically true for the high seas – out of sight, and sometimes called the “forgotten half” of our planet.
This global commons is the biggest biosphere of the planet – comprising 64 per cent of the global ocean and nearly half our planet, and provides nearly 90 per cent of the habitat for all life on Earth. Yet, currently less than 1 per cent of the high seas is fully protected, offering little refuge for ecosystems and species.
But now, fifty years since Pardo’s transformative speech, we have a golden opportunity to address all kinds of issues that no one even dreamed about in 1982 when UNCLOS was adopted. This includes ocean warming and acidification, massive dead zones, depletion of fish and marine biodiversity, noise, plastic and chemical pollution, and all the other pressures we now understand are threatening the ability of the ocean to sustain itself, and us.
And the science is clear. Two high-level UN reports have been released in the past six months highlighting the need for massive change in the way we manage our biodiversity and ocean to address the impacts from climate change and a multitude of human-induced stressors. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report highlights the urgency of prioritising timely, ambitious and coordinated action to address unprecedented and enduring changes in the ocean and cryosphere.
It is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global.
The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services states that the rate of species extinction across all sectors is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and is accelerating. IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson noted that through transformative change, “it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global.”
We must listen to the science, and the science tells us unequivocally that it is time for action to close high seas governance gaps and complete the ambitious agenda that UNCLOS began. Since September 2018, world governments have gathered at the United Nations to negotiate a new treaty to provide protection for marine life in the High Seas.
Many of us working with the High Seas Alliance (a global partnership of 40 environmental NGOs) have been engaged and following these discussions since they first began 2005 – nearly 15 years ago. The clock is ticking, with many critical issues still unresolved. The need for renewed international cooperation, and the heightened ambition and political will to reach agreement is more important than ever before.
What can we do, in a time when we are reminded of the dangers of unilateralism on a daily basis, while the environmental crisis continues to create even greater anxieties about our future? There is no better example than the climate and ocean crisis to highlight the need for international cooperation and multilateralism – global problems require global solutions.
From November 11th-13th, the High Seas Alliance will participate in the Paris Peace Forum which is an annual international meeting convened for global governance actors initiated by French President Emmanuel Macron, to provide a platform where examples of collective action to tackle global challenges are brought forward.
There, our call to action – our plea – to world leaders, and representatives from all sectors, is that this UN treaty process does not institutionalize the status quo, but results in real legal protection in the water for high seas marine life. After decades of discussions at the United Nations and in world capitals, governments need to bring a level of ambition that reflects the magnitude of what is at stake, so that we can address not just the problems identified 30 years ago, but those of today and in the years to come.
With the final treaty negotiating session slated for March 2020 fast approaching, and new and multiple threats confronting the ocean every single day, there is no more time to waste. This is a once in a generation opportunity for transformative change for the ocean. Let’s make it happen.
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