Perspectives is an ongoing series by the Cari-Bois Environmental News Network which aims to give Caribbean scientists, explorers and nature enthusiasts the platform to share their experiences. This latest piece was written by Dr. Kahlil Hassanali, Senior Research Officer at Trinidad and Tobago’s Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA). Hassanali was part of CARICOM’s negotiating team at the recently concluded Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ).
On March 4, the United Nations agreed on the draft text for a legally binding, international ocean biodiversity treaty which would call upon member states to conserve and sustainably use the resources of marine biodiversity in areas beyond their national jurisdiction.
The moment defined the recently concluded Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) and ended years of high powered negotiations on the issue.
Almost 20 years ago, Small island developing states (SIDs) first raised concerns about the gaps in ocean governance in areas beyond national jurisdictions (the high seas).
But work on creating an agreement to adequately address the issue would not start until 2017 when the UN General Assembly convened an Intergovernmental Conference to consider recommendations on the issue.
The conference held an organisational meeting in April 2018 with its first session being convened in September 2018.
Since then, four other sessions were held including the recently concluded fifth session where the BBNJ Agreement was drafted.
Managing the High Seas
Commonly called the “Treaty of the High Seas”, the draft BBNJ agreement was hailed by Her Excellency Rena Lee, President of the BBJN Conference and Singapore’s UN Ambassador for Oceans and Law of the Sea Issues.
Geographically, the agreement applies to parts of the ocean (64 percent) that lie outside of the jurisdiction of nations which make up 45 percent of the earth’s surface.
While ocean resources and human activity have been historically managed by a patchwork of international bodies and treaties, many of those bodies were sectoral in nature with few mechanisms existing to facilitate communication and coordination between them.
Additionally, they would have varied greatly in terms of their mandate and focus with biodiversity conservation accounting for very little of their areas of priority.
The piecemeal governance approach in the high seas has led to environmental degradation in some areas and made the sustainable management of resources challenging both legally and logistically.
Given the ocean’s ecosystems produce a substantial amount of oxygen, and act as the world’s largest carbon sink, the BBNJ’s mandate to protect the high sea – which represents a substantial expanse of the world’s oceans- is important.
How CARICOM navigated the BBNJ negotiations
With the topics covered during the BBNJ negotiations being wide ranging, complex and highly technical, the Caribbean Community (Caricom) participated in the process as a bloc to manage the workload.
Doing so also allowed Caricom a greater degree of influence in being able to advance text that reflected the Caribbean’s interests.
The mode of engagement as a collective provided lessons for Caricom that would serve Caribbean countries well in future environmental agreement negotiations.
On a global level, achieving the BBNJ Agreement – which required the support and consensus of 193 nations – was a tremendous achievement.
The agreement served as a much needed win for multilateralism, especially given the present day complexities in global politics and geopolitics.
While there has been agreement on the draft text, it will still have to be adopted later on this year.
Once completed, individual nation states will then have to ratify the agreement and begin implementing it.
Understanding the BBNJ Agreement
Main Takeaway #1: Equitable Resource Management
The draft text of the BBNJ agreement provides rules and procedures for accessing and utilising genetic resources and digital sequence information from areas beyond national jurisdiction.
In doing so, the agreement guarantees that Global South countries benefit both monetarily and non-monetarily from research into and products developed from the high seas.
It is expected that these genetic resources, and their digital sequence information, will be central in the pharmaceutical industry’s ongoing thrust to develop treatments for a range of ailments and diseases such as cancer.
Where they are used in the processes, part of the anticipated lucrative proceeds will be shared with Global South countries to help conserve and manage the ocean.
Main Takeaway #2: Protecting marine ecosystems in the high seas
The BBNJ agreement also provides a mechanism to conceptualise and establish conservation measures – like marine protected areas – in the high seas.
It is the hope that the agreement will contribute towards the recent goal of protecting 30 percent of the earth’s marine areas which was recently developed at the 2022 United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) under the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.
Main Takeaway #3: Monitoring environmental impacts on the high seas
The BBNJ agreement mandates and sets out the procedure for conducting environmental impact assessments of proposed activities in the high seas.
Before permission is given for any project to proceed in the high seas, any environmental risks assessed must be countered with measures to mitigate their potential impacts.
The agreement will also ensure projects are monitored and the permitted activities are reviewed overtime.
“The rules encourage transparency, use of best available science and traditional knowledge, and provide avenues for global oversight and intervention when projects are done on the high seas. It also provides an explicit decision making standard for permitting proposed activities.”Dr. Kahlil Hassanali, Senior Research Officer at the Institute of Marine Affairs
Main Takeaway #4: Equitable Access to Technology
The BBNJ agreement provides for improved capacity and more robust architecture to build the technological capacity of Global South countries to ensure they are not hampered or disadvantaged in fulfilling their responsibilities, and exercising their rights, under the agreement.
As such, mechanisms will be developed to finance capacity building activities in these countries.
In doing so, the agreement empowers all countries – including Global South and SIDs – to conserve the resources of the high seas and sustainably manage its activities in the area.