The BBNJ Agreement – a win for the Ocean and Multilateralism
By Dr. Kahlil Hassanali, Senior Research Officer, Institute of Marine Affairs
“The ship has reached the shore.”
This was how Her Excellency Rena Lee, Ambassador of Singapore and President of the Intergovernmental Conference relating to an international legally binding instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (The BBNJ Agreement), announced that delegations had finally agreed on a treaty text. After nearly twenty years of talks on the matter, five years in an Intergovernmental Conference setting, two weeks into the resumed fifth session of that Conference, and thirty-eight hours over the scheduled deadline during which time delegates bunkered in the basement of the UN headquarters in a last push to achieve agreement, Ambassador Lee’s statement was rightfully delivered with a mix of emotions including joy, relief and gratitude.
The BBNJ Agreement negotiations have been hailed by some as the most important talks of which no one has heard. Indeed, the discussions focussed on areas of the planet far removed from the everyday consciousness of the average person. Geographically, the agreement applies to parts of the ocean that lie outside of the jurisdiction of nations, a significant area that makes up 64% of the entire ocean and 45% of the earth’s surface.
In these regions a patchwork of international bodies and treaties manage some ocean resources and human activity. Many of those bodies are sectoral in nature with few mechanisms existing to facilitate communication and coordination between them. In addition, they vary greatly in terms of their mandate and focus, with biodiversity conservation very often not being their main priority. This piecemeal governance approach has led to the degradation of areas and resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction, and makes deploying management and conservation tools challenging, both legally and logistically. With ocean ecosystems producing half of the oxygen we breathe and acting as the world’s largest carbon sink, the importance of healthy oceans, and the BBNJ Agreement, cannot be overstated.
In keeping with the very specific topical mandate of the negotiations, the final treaty text provides rules and procedures for accessing and utilizing genetic resources and digital sequence information from areas beyond national jurisdiction and in doing so, will guarantee that developing countries benefit, monetarily and non-monetarily, from research into and products developed from them. It is expected that these genetic resources and their digital sequence information will be central in the pharmaceutical industry’s ongoing thrust to develop treatments for a range of ailments and diseases such as cancer. Where they are used in the processes, part of the anticipated lucrative proceeds will be shared with developing countries to help conserve and manage the ocean.
The agreement also provides a mechanism to contemplate and subsequently establish conservation measures in those areas of the ocean that lie outside of national jurisdiction. The measures include marine protected areas. The BBNJ Agreement will thus be an important means to achieve the global goal agreed under the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Global Biodiversity Framework to protect 30% of the earth’s marine areas by 2030.
With regard to environmental impact assessment, the agreement mandates and sets out the procedure for conducting assessment of activities proposed in areas beyond national jurisdiction, before they are given permission to proceed, in order to implement measures to mitigate their potential impacts. It also mandates subsequent monitoring and review of permitted activities. The rules encourage transparency, use of best available science and traditional knowledge, and provides avenues for global oversight and intervention in the process. It also provides an explicit decision making standard for permitting proposed activities.
As it relates to capacity building and marine technology transfer, the agreement will provide for improved and more robust architecture to do this, including a dedicated, mandatorily resourced Fund to finance capacity building activities. The intent is to ensure that developing countries are not hampered or disadvantaged in fulfilling their responsibilities and exercising their rights under the Agreement. In doing so, the Agreement can positively contribute to all countries conserving, managing and maintaining a healthy ocean along with providing for the ocean and its resources to be used in enabling sustainable development of developing societies, including those of small island developing states.
Given the wide ranging, complex and highly technical nature of the topics covered in the negotiations, and massive associated workload, Caribbean countries, acting individually, would not have been able to adequately cover and engage in BBNJ process. With this realization, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) participated in the process as a bloc. Doing so allowed CARICOM to be an influential, well respected and impactful participant in all aspects of the negotiations, successfully advocating for and advancing text that reflected their interests. This mode of engagement as a collective provided enduring lessons for the regional group that would serve Caribbean countries well in future environmental agreement negotiations and indeed, more generally.
On a global level, achieving accepted text of the BBNJ Agreement among 193 nations was also, in itself, a tremendous achievement. It served as a much needed win for multilateralism, especially given the present day complexities in world politics. That being said, agreement on the text, although a crucial step, is not the last step. The text will have to be adopted later on this year after which the process of States ratifying and implementing the Agreement will begin. It is hoped that Caribbean countries will continue to lead the world on this journey geared towards conserving and sustainably using the ocean and its resources.