International waters represent around two-thirds of oceans and 43% of Earth’s
Surface. The oceans alone represent 95% of Earth’s habitable space. And yet, only around 1% of international waters are protected today, through the figure of the Marine Protected Area (MPA).
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), passed in 1982,gives a loose definition of international waters (also known as high seas). High seas comprise “all parts of the sea that are not included in the exclusive economic zone, in the territorial sea or the internal waters of a State, or in the archipelagic waters of an archipelagic State” (Article 86).
Source: Sara Gemeny Wilkinson, ShareAmerica.
A lot of things happen in these waters. To sum it up, all countries enjoy “high seas freedoms” and are entitled to exercise these freedoms without interference from any other state, as long as they do it lawfully regarding other States interests. Freedom of navigation, overflight, fishing and scientific research are a few examples of activities carried out in this vast portion of the oceans.
However, there is a sort of invisible reality in the high seas where the “law of the jungle” prevails. Kristina Gjerde
, a lawyer for the IUCN, explains that UNCLOS is nothing but a dead letter in many remote places, which renders international waters into a scenario similar to that of the North-American Wild West.
For example, Gjerde explained to a Spanish journal
that a subject or group has to be caught red-handed to go to prison. And the only authorities that can arrest and take the author to trial are those in their own country. Suppose country A suspected that a vessel from country B is fishing illegally in international waters; in that case, the crew cannot be detained, so there is no effective system to enforce the law.
Because there is no global international organisation able to designate marine protected areas in international waters, Gjerde advocates for the UN to instigate an international agreement on biodiversity in the high seas. Less than 1% of international waters are classified as MPAs, according to IUCN data.
In 2017, UN delegates recommended that the General Assembly begin negotiations towards the treaty as soon as possible, which resulted in the adoption of Resolution 72/249 on December 24, with 141 government co-sponsors. An intergovernmental conference was convened through this resolution. Since 2018, countries worldwide have gathered at the UN for three negotiating sessions for this new international legally binding instrument under the UNCLOS convention.
The fourth and final session, originally scheduled to take place from March 23 – April 2 2020, was postponed until August 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here at CuriOcean, we truly hope that the negotiations scheduled for next August will be completed successfully and that the ambitious treaty will be signed, because as Gjerde explained, we cannot afford any more waiting time whilst the health of our oceans rapidly deteriorates.
We must do everything possible to protect and regenerate marine biodiversity, and the first step is the birthing of a treaty that envisions formal methods to do so.
By Belen Blanco