THE UN HIGH SEAS TREATY
In February the latest round of negotiations for a new High Seas Treaty ended without agreement. This means ten years of negotiations have failed to produce results. The world’s largest ecosystem, covering over two-fifths of the earth’s surface, is still unprotected.
In the meantime, the genetic resources of the High Seas are being exploited by wealthy corporations based in just a few countries. Subsidised fishing from a handful of countries is looting its fragile environment. Without those subsidies, harmful activities including deep sea bottom trawling would simply not occur. Underneath the High Seas, meanwhile, the prospect of deep sea mining is creeping closer.
The age of colonial adventure has left us with a commitment to the ‘freedom of the sea,’ a principle that still licences unrestrained pillage of the fragile marine environment. The longer we wait for a new Treaty, the more damage is done. As Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, has pointed out, “We can’t have 95% of our global commons left as gangland without the rule of law”. But wait we must, as countries lobby to water down environmental protections in a new Treaty, and to exclude fishing activities from any regulation at all.
We should not pin all of our hopes on a new High Seas Treaty, should it ever emerge. The draft Treaty is full of compromises with vested interests, and represents a missed opportunity. It will not turn back the tide of environmental destruction, it will not outlaw industrial fishing on the High Seas, and it will not ensure that any benefits from exploiting the ocean are fairly shared with the global South.
Industrial fishing on the High Seas is state-sponsored vandalism, and ought to be outlawed. Deep sea mining would wreak havoc with slow-growing ecosystems on the sea floor. It too should be banned. Rather than the goal of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030, we should protect the whole of the High Seas, safeguarding it from all destructive economic activities. Rather than a Treaty full of holes, we need a powerful new ocean authority capable of acting as a guardian for the world’s largest ecosystem, and representing the interests of the many wonderful forms of life that live there. Rather than ocean politics being dominated by a few transnational corporations, we need a vibrant, democratic and inclusive ocean politics for our planet to have any future at all.
With the UN IMO and ISA bodies complicit in the destruction of the Ocean and the failure of a treaty to protect the High Seas (or the likelihood of a treaty which certainly won’t protect the high seas) isn’t it time for the UN to put its collective hands in the air and declare ‘this isn’t working’? It’s all very well for the UN to make statements like ‘arson of our only home’ but talk is cheap. Stop the pointless talk and geopolitical gaming, tell the truth, sit down afresh and start real change. Call out the companies and governments who are obstructing the saving of the Ocean, and name the implications of what they are trying to achieve. We need the Ocean to thrive again, as the sea dies we die.
The UN must form a new, transparent, and representative body to govern the Ocean for the benefit of ALL life. This new body must have the restoration and replenishment of the Ocean as its only measure of success. It should replace corporate power with people power. And it should represent the many forms of marine life who actually make the ocean a home.
Chris Armstrong says:
“The governance of the High Seas is an ecological disaster. Its founding principles were dreamt up in a time when we thought the ocean’s bounty was inexhaustible, and its ecosystems too robust to ever fail. We have now pushed that idea beyond breaking point. We urgently need a revolution in High Seas politics, with protection and participation replacing corporate pillage.”
Roc Sandford adds:
“As the seas die, we die, and the seas are dying. If the collapse of marine biodiversity is not halted immediately, release of blue carbon currently sequestered in the oceans will accelerate climate breakdown and condemn countless people to an agonising death. We must rush reforms of the existing UN ocean-focussed structures, currently criminally unfit for purpose, whilst simultaneously building a new and effective ocean governance body to take their place. It’s now or never. I don’t understand why everyone isn’t screaming, given what we know about what is happening in the Ocean and what that means for us.”
Photos: João Daniel Pereira. ‘OUR LEADERS…’ and ‘EVERYTHING WILL…’ illuminations of the Torre de Belém, Lisbon, during the UN Ocean Conference 2022.