After years of negotiations, UN member states finally agreed on Saturday 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 shore,” conference president Rena Lee announced at the UN headquarters in New York shortly before 9:30 a.m. (0230 GMT Sunday), amid loud and prolonged applause from delegates.
After more than 15 years of discussion, including four years of formal talks, less than a year later the third so-called final negotiating session marked the beginning of a long-awaited consensus.
The treaty calls for the protection of 30 percent of the world’s land and ocean by 2030, as agreed by world governments in a landmark accord signed in Montreal in December.
The exact wording of the text was not immediately released, but activists hailed it as an important moment for the conservation of biodiversity.
Laura Meller of Greenpeace said, “It is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, the defense of nature and people can triumph over geopolitics.”
After two weeks of intense negotiations, including marathon overnight sessions from Friday to Saturday, the delegates finalized a text that could no longer be changed significantly.
Lee told negotiators, “There will be no resumes or discussions of substance.”
He announced that the agreement would be formally adopted at a later date after it has been vetted by lawyers and translated into the six official languages of the UN.
The high seas begin at the boundary of countries’ exclusive economic zones, which extend up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the coastline. Thus they do not come under the jurisdiction of any country.
Even though the high seas comprise more than 60 percent of the world’s oceans and nearly half of the planet’s surface, they have long attracted 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 carbon dioxide emitted by human activities.
But they are threatened by climate change, pollution and over-fishing.
Currently only about one percent of the open ocean is protected.
When the new treaty comes into force, it will allow for the creation of marine protected areas in these international waters.
Liz Karan of The Pew Charitable Trusts said, “High seas marine protected areas can play an important role in building resilience to the effects of climate change,” calling the agreement a “significant achievement.”
The treaty will also oblige countries to assess the environmental impact of proposed activities on the deep sea.
A highly sensitive chapter on the sharing of the potential benefits of newly discovered marine resources was one of the focal points of tensions as talks scheduled to end on Friday lapsed more than a day earlier.
Developing countries, without the means to afford expensive research, fought not to be locked out of the expected benefits from the commercialization of potential substances discovered in international waters.
The pharmaceutical, chemical or cosmetic use of newly discovered marine substances is likely to have ultimate benefits that are not related to anyone.
As in other international forums, especially in climate negotiations, the debate veered into a question of how to ensure equity between the poorer global South and the richer North, observers noted.
In a move seen as an attempt to build trust between rich and poor countries, the European Union pledged 40 million euros ($42 million) in New York to facilitate the ratification of the treaty and its early implementation.
The European Union announced $860 million for research, monitoring and protection of the oceans in 2023 at the Our Ocean Conference that ended Friday in Panama. Panama said the countries have pledged a total of $19 billion.
In 2017, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on nations to establish a high seas treaty.
It had originally planned four negotiating sessions but two resolutions had to be passed to ensure two additional sessions.
“Finally now we can move from dialogue to real sea change,” said Greenpeace’s Mailer.