The emotion felt when President Rena Lee announced that a United Nations treaty on the high seas had finally been concluded reflected her exhaustion, her relief and the human effort involved in multilateralism.
In a divided world, bringing 193 nations to consensus on everything is difficult.
But coming to an entirely new politically sensitive pact covering nearly two-thirds of the planet’s oceans that belong to no one is quite another thing.
This is why UN member states have struggled for nearly two decades to find a way to protect the high seas.
On paper, that’s exactly what they did, and not too soon.
Our oceans and the biodiversity they harbor support life on Earth.
They produce nearly half of the planet’s oxygen and absorb a quarter of its carbon dioxide and the excess heat it generates.
But they are seriously threatened by pollution, overfishing and global warming.
As US climate envoy John Kerry said recently: “The ocean is life itself.
“This life is threatened because of the very reckless and reckless activities of human beings without thinking about the impact and without considering that it is a living organism, a living system. And given the wrong inputs, this system can be killed.”
Actress and activist Jane Fonda put it a little less gently: “We poop in our kennel. We’re supposed to be so smart. We destroy things we don’t even understand.”
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What is in the High Seas Treaty and why is it needed?
The treaty, in a nutshell, will provide a legal framework for the establishment of large marine protected areas (MPAs).
This means that all activities that take place on the high seas will be subject to environmental impact assessments, with Member States being held accountable for their actions.
The treaty itself focuses on four main areas, according to the charity WWF: marine genetic resources, area-based management tools, environmental impact assessments, marine technology transfer and capacity building.
This could mean restrictions on the amount of fishing that can take place and on activities such as seabed mining and deep sea carbon capture and storage.
Until now, efforts to protect marine species, including dolphins and whales – and human communities that rely on fishing or marine life tourism – have been hampered by a confusing patchwork of laws.
It is hoped that the obligation of developed States to share their knowledge and technologies and to build their capacities will result, in particular developing countries, in a greater participation in the conservation of the high seas.
Jessica Battle, ocean governance expert at the World Wide Fund for Nature, said: “This treaty will help bring together the different regional treaties to be able to address threats and concerns.”
Thus, the United Nations High Seas Treaty is truly a milestone in a journey fraught with setbacks and false starts.
But there is still a long way to go.
The agreement establishes the legal framework for the creation of large marine protected areas that will help control fishing, deep-sea mining and shipping, as well as agree on a fair distribution of newly discovered resources.
It will be extremely complicated in practice, involving overlapping and competing industries and organizations to find a way to work in harmony in what has essentially been a place of lawlessness.
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Experts have already warned that the treaty must be quickly adopted, ratified and implemented in order to have any real impact.
And, they warn, it is not yet clear how this will be applied.
When delegates return from New York, they will be aware of all of this and that the hard work has only just begun.
But on this occasion, they will also know that they helped shape a historic agreement, which shows the power of multilateralism and how it can help us fight the climate crisis.