UN High Seas Treaty

Context: The United Nations aims to protect the High Seas as they make up more than 60% of the world’s oceans.

What are High Seas?

  • Definition: The high seas are defined by international law as, all parts of the ocean that aren’t included in the exclusive economic zone, the territorial sea, or the internal waters of a country.
    • This essentially means that the high seas and associated resources are not directly owned or regulated by any country.
  • Internal Waters: Covers all water and waterways on the landward side of the baseline. The State is free to set laws, regulate use, and use any resource.
  • Territorial Waters: Extend up to 12 nautical miles (22 kilometres; 14 miles) from the baseline. The coastal State is free to set laws, regulate use, and use any resource.
  • Contiguous Zone: Extends further 12 nautical miles beyond the territorial waters.

The State can enforce laws in four specific areas – customs, taxation, immigration, and pollution.

  • Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs): EEZs extent up to 200 nautical miles (370 km; 230 mi) from the baseline. Within this area, the coastal nation has sole exploitation rights over all natural resources.
High Seas
High Seas

What is the Proposed UN High Seas Treaty?

  • About: Also referred to as the ‘Paris Agreement for the Ocean’, the treaty deals with Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) and has been under discussion for several years.
    • The proposed treaty concerns the ocean existing beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones till where it has special rights for exploration.
  • Negotiation: The treaty was to be negotiated under the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) which governs the rights of countries regarding marine resources.
    • As there is no treaty for conserving the health of vast swathes of the earth’s oceans, a UN resolution in 2017 had decided to rectify this while setting 2022 as the deadline.
  • Key areas of focus:
    •  The conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ); 
    •  Marine Genetic Resources (MGRs: Biological material from plants and animals in the ocean that can have benefits for society, such as pharmaceuticals, industrial processes and food), including questions on benefit-sharing;
    •  Area Based Management Tools (ABMT), including Marine Protected Areas (MPAs);
    • Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA); 
    • Capacity-building and the Transfer of Marine Technology (CB&TMT)

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

  • The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted in 1982.
  •  It lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world’s oceans and seas, establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources.
    • It does not specify how States should conserve and sustainably use high seas biodiversity.
  •  It also regulates activities in international waters, including sea-bed mining and cable laying.
  • India became a signatory to the UNCLOS in 1982. 

Why is the Treaty Needed?

  • Vastness of the Ocean: The high seas span two-thirds of the ocean and cover half the planet and supply a third of the world’s oxygen.
  • Energy and Trade: It is important to protect the ocean in order to generate sustainable wave and tidal energy, as well as for the production of commodities.
  • Biodiversity: The high seas are among the last truly wild places on earth.  They are home to bountiful marine biodiversity, including some of our most iconic and valued species.
    • They are also home to remarkable ecosystems, such as towering seamounts and deep-water coral gardens. 
  • 30×30 target:  According to scientists, it is critical to conserve at least 30% of the ocean by 2030 (30×30) to support healthy marine ecosystems and biodiversity globally.
    •  Currently, less than 1% of the high seas are in marine protected areas. 
  • Climate change: Conserving the high seas through marine protected areas is not only good for biodiversity, but also critical for our climate.
    • More than half of the total amount of oxygen in our atmosphere is created by creatures in the ocean.
    • At the same time, oceans store 50 times more carbon dioxide than what’s currently found in our atmosphere.
  • Medicines: Some agents living in deep seas and oceans have the ability to treat variety of diseases, such as leukemia.
  • Lack of Legal Framework: States do not have a mechanism to create and manage such a network in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction.

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