By Chevanev Charles
Our ocean is our largest biosphere and is home to about 80 percent of all life on Earth. The delicate ocean ecosystems play an integral role in our day to day lives; food and livelihoods, climate stability, interdependence among organisms, rich source for new medicines, etc. Unfortunately, with the High Seas having little regulation, it endangers marine life, placing them at a greater risk for exploitation and presents inequitable sharing of benefits of resources among States and especially developing States.
At the time of writing this article, the United Nations are attempting to reach a global agreement to protect, conserve and sustainably use part of the ocean that falls beyond the control or jurisdiction of any individual country. This intergovernmental conference on an international legally binding instrument 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 taking place between the 15th-26th August 2022.
Many countries are choosing to enter these negotiations as a group such as G77, Group of Latin America and the Caribbean (GRULAC), Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the more well-known CARICOM. This attempt will be another attempt at reaching an agreement after more than a decade of debating its contents. States began to discuss the agreement as early as 2004 and are at the table once more to attempt collective resolution. The official title of the agreement a is: “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.”
What is in the Treaty?
The Agreement is being developed within the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS), as well as strong reference to other agreements like the UN Fish Stocks Agreement in the areas of biotechnology, law of the sea and fisheries. Areas beyond national jurisdiction are considered to be the common heritage of mankind under the UNCLOS Agreement.
The Agreement has four important areas that were decided in the draft text: (1) Access and benefits sharing of marine genetic resources; (2) Environmental impact assessments; (3) Area-based management tools including marine protected areas; and (4) Capacity Building and the Transfer of Marine Technology.
How does SVG benefit?
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is considered to be a Small Island Developing State or SIDS and this means we are vulnerable, lacking the resources and expertise to do many activities in the High Seas. While we are limited, we still have a very strong voice amplified further by association with other groups. Our interests align with many other SIDS especially in areas of benefit sharing and capacity building.
Potential benefits that may come from this agreement can include monetary benefits like royalties, milestone payments; vaccines; access to research and data that could be a stepping stone to a commercialized product; master’s degree scholarships, workshops in relevant areas like marine science, hydrography, pollution and biotechnology, and the like; training and cooperation for our scientists (at UWI); research projects transfer of technology that will help us understand organisms that we may also encounter closer to our shores.
Why is this taking so long?
It has proved incredibly difficult to reach consensus on the text of the document. There are multiple competing interests not just from states but from the pharmaceutical, nutritional and personal care companies that look to the deep ocean for vaccines and genetic information to make drugs or other products.
Drugs are commercialized in foreign markets for hundreds of millions of dollars. The area the genetic resources are collected from is subject to the common heritage of mankind and therefore a fraction of the commercial activity should be paid into a fund to benefit all countries including SVG.
On the other hand, many large countries only see the High Seas as a place that no one has jurisdiction and are content to exploit it as they see fit. This is contrary to what SVG or any SIDS would want. For this agreement to move forward, there has to be strategic compromises made.
The negotiating period has gone on for years, but the next couple weeks could be quite critical to its completion. Once completed with substance, this agreement would dictate future deep-sea activity and its resources. If there is no agreement, then the status quo will continue with no focused treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean for future generations. SIDS like SVG depend on healthy oceans and there are many resources in our waters that can provide significant benefit to SVG and to the world.