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Law of the Seas: Protecting the Oceans Law of the Seas: Protecting the Oceans
by Rene Wadlow
2019-08-26 10:59:07
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From 19 to 30 August 2019, an intergovernmental conference to draft a legally-binding agreement to provide future gnerations with a "healthy, resilient and productive Ocean" is being held at the United Nations in New York.  This is the third of four planned rounds to achieve the treaty within the framework of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  The hope is to reach an agreement at the fourth round to be held in the first half of 2020.  The Association of World Citizens had participated actively in the negotiations during the 1970s which led to the UNCLOS treaty.  Thus we know that agreements can take more time in practice than in theory.

ocea01_400The first two sessions were devoted to an exchange of ideas and aims which have now been drawn together into a written text of the proposed treaty.  This draft text has been presented to the delegates by the Conference President Ms Rena Lee of Singapore.  The aim now is to work on the language of the treaty which  would be finalized at the last of these four sessions.

After the second intergovernmental session, the 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has been published.  The Report presents alarming conclusions which add pressure on the delegates to reach an agreement in 2020.  The Assessment Report has stated that, across most of the Planet, humans have significantly altered the ecosystems, and biodiversity has shown a rapid decline.  The Assessment Report highlighted that some 66 percent of the ocean is experiencing increased human impact due to climate change, ocean acidification, and polution.

The aim of the treaty being negotiated is to conserve and sustainably use marine biological diversity in the ocean areas beyond the 200 nauticle miles.  The first 200 nauticle miles are under national jurisdiction and are called the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).  A national government may give permission to other States to fish in its EEZ, but the conditions  under which it is done is under the control of the coastal State.  Beyond the 200 nautical miles is an area which world citizens have called "the common heritage of mankind".  Unfortunately the comon heritage concept is left out of the current draft treaty.

The major point of contention in these Law of the Seas discussions under way concerns the baseline for measuring the 200 nautical miles.  The debate had already come up in the 1970s when the UNCLOS was being negotiated, one year in New York, the next year in Geneva for nearly a decade.  The 200 nautical miles do not start from the shore line which might be considered logical but from inhabited islands, rocks and shoals which may be many miles from  the national shoreline. 

Governments are currently enlarging such islands and putting an air landing field and a few people so that they can be considered "inhabited".  This policy of increasing the size of islands or building artificial islands around nationally-owned rocks is particularly evident in the South China Sea carried out by both China and Japan.  Thus the 200 nautical miles overlap in places with claims of Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.  The situation is made even more complex by rival military consideration in the South China Sea.

wc00The second topic of contention being raised by developing countries concerns the transfer of technology from more developed to lesser developed States.  This issue had also been raised during the 1970s UNCLOS negotiations.  More technologically-advanced countries have the technology for fishing and preserving at sea than fishermen from less developed States. This is particularly true for deep-sea mining and oil exploration.  The UNCLOS treaty had a provision for the transfer of technology, but in paractice, very little was done.  With this negative example in mind, developing countries are now asking for stronger transfer of technology provisions in this new treaty.

As Citizens of the World, we still work for the spirit of the common heritage.  The current negotiations are worth watching.  We will have to see if the current popular emphasis on climate change - a climate energency - will  have an impact on inportant but relatively specialized, negotiations.


Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens

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