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The UN BBNJ Negotiations for a legally binding instrument

The UN BBNJ Negotiations

In 2004, the UN General Assembly established the Ad Hoc Open-ended Informal Working Group to study issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction (BBNJ Working Group) through Resolution 59/24. The BBNJ Working Group met a total of ten times between 2006 and 2015. 

In 2015, States adopted Resolution 69/292 to develop an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the conservation and sustainable use of BBNJ. A Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) was establish and met four times between 2016 and 2017 to make substantive recommendations to the General Assembly on the elements of a draft text of an international legally binding instrument under UNCLOS. 

Formal negotiations started in 2018 with the establishment of an Intergovernmental Conference through Resolution 72/249. To date, the Intergovernmental Conference has met three times (August 2018, March/April 2019, and August 2019) under the presidency of Mrs. Rena Lee of Singapore. The fourth session, originally planned for March/April 2020, has been postponed as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The revised draft text under negotiations of an agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction is available here

The UN Negotiations focus on four elements that were agreed on by States in 2011: 

  • Marine Genetic Resources, including questions on the sharing of benefits
  • Area Based Management Tools (ABMTs), including marine protected areas
  • Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) 
  • Capacity Building and the Transfer of Marine Technology
REPORT: The Long and Winding Road

Marine Genetic Resources, including the Questions on the Sharing of Benefits

All species contain genetic material that can be of potential interest for biotechnological applications, such as in the field of pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, cosmetics, and biofuels. Species that live under extreme temperature, pressure or low-oxygen conditions can offer opportunities for new discoveries. The Convention on Biological Diversity defines genetic resources as ‘genetic material of actual or potential value’, whereby genetic material is ‘any material of plant, animal, microbial or other origin containing functional units of heredity’. The definition applied to MGRs for the purpose of the new BBNJ agreement will need to be agreed on by States during the negotiations as this will determine which access and benefit-sharing (ABS) mechanism will need to be adopted. 

STRONG High Seas Project dived deeper into this subject in a webinar in 2019. You can listen here.

New discoveries from ocean resources

Area-Based Management Tools, including Marine Protected Areas

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs)

An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is defined by the Espoo Convention as a ‘procedure for evaluating the likely impact of a proposed activity on the environment’. Whereas an EIA is conducted at the project/ activity level, Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) provides a broader assessment that aims to better understand proposed activities, impacts and future developments within an area or sector when developing policies, plans or programmes, or when considering new technologies and activities. The obligation to conduct an EIA for activities that could have a significant impact on the marine environment of marine areas within and beyond national jurisdiction is part of customary international law. However, there are currently no comprehensive global rules and regulations with regard to the application of EIAs or SEAs in ABNJ. 

There is a need to explore the cumulative impacts of multiple activities in the ocean to have a better understanding of the impacts these activities have both where they occur, and over a broad geographic area. 

Capacity Building and the Transfer of Marine Technology

Capacity building is defined by the UN Economic and Social Council as a long-term and continuing ‘process by which individuals, organizations, institutions and societies develop abilities to perform functions, solve problems and set and achieve objectives’. Marine technology has been defined by the IOC as being ‘instruments, equipment, vessels, processes and methodologies required to produce and use knowledge to improve the study and understanding of the nature and resources of the ocean and coastal areas’. Harden Davies (2017) highlights that this list can be extended to also include, amongst others, scientific training, research cruise participation, as well as research exchanges and cooperation. 

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