Countries tread water on UN high seas treaty as talks fail

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Talks held in New York last week around a new global treaty to protect marine life stalled once again after more than five rounds and 20 years of negotiations.

UN member states met for two weeks to finalise the global agreement to protect and manage the high seas, an area which encompasses two-thirds of the ocean and lies outside the jurisdiction of any single country.

However, countries failed to resolve some of the last outstanding areas of the draft text, with the United States, Russia and China, among the countries observers said held up negotiations.

“Of note, Russia and China are blocking the creation of marine protected areas,” Justine Réveillas, post-doctoral researcher at La Rochelle university told RTS’s Tout un monde. “They fear that by protecting large areas of the high seas they will be deprived of the right to fish in those regions,” she explained.

There were some key areas of progress, such as the inclusion of provisions that make sure that all planned activities in the high seas are subject to environmental impact assessments. But these breakthroughs fell short of deal.

Read also: Leaders race to finalise UN high seas treaty as talks

Rena Lee, the president of the Intergovernmental Conference overseeing the treaty talks, said she would ask the UN General Assembly in September for new dates to restart negotiations.

Many countries, including  Pacific small island developing states, expressed their disappointment over the slowdown. Speaking on behalf of the group, Samoa’s representative said they had come in good faith from afar, spending $260,000 to bring in 24 people.

Those were funds not spent on roads, medicine or schools at home, but on travel to come to New York, she said, urging member states to “finish what we started”.

Environmental groups, including WWF,  called for talks to resume no later than early 2023.  “Our ocean faces enormous pressure from overfishing, shipping impacts, increased industrialisation and new threats like deep seabed mining. These delays have real consequences for people and nature,” said Jessica Battle, senior global ocean governance and policy expert at WWF.

“We are very close to the finish line. We call on leaders and the UN to get the necessary work done so a treaty is concluded with urgency. The ocean can’t wait.”