States reach landmark UN Treaty to protect marine biodiversity in the high seas

27 March 2023 | 2 minute read

On March 4, 2023, UN Member States reached a landmark agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, otherwise known as Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (the “BBNJ Treaty”).  The Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General hailed the BBNJ Treaty as “a victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health, now and for generations to come.”

This is the first global instrument to establish governance over nearly half of our planet since the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”) in 1982.  While UNCLOS codified a foundational framework for governance of the seas, it did not establish any legally binding mechanisms for creating marine protected areas outside States’ territorial seas, undertaking environmental impact assessments, benefit-sharing of marine genetic resources, or capacity building and technology transfer.  Implementing these developments, the BBNJ Treaty comes at a critical time when climate change, overfishing, deep-seabed mining, shipping, and other human activities continue to harm marine biodiversity in the ocean.

This treaty is the culmination of a tremendous period of development and negotiation that officially launched on December 24, 2017, when the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 72/249.  Since September 2018, an Intergovernmental Conference (“IGC”) of States has been meeting to negotiate the BBNJ Treaty with a goal of finalizing its work by 2020.  A draft text of the treaty was issued in June 2019, but further negotiations were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Withers advised pro bono client the High Seas Alliance (the “HSA”), an organization working to strengthen conservation of the high seas, on issues of public international law and domestic legal frameworks during the BBNJ Treaty negotiations.  In August 2019, Withers accompanied the HSA during the third IGC session, at which the BBNJ Treaty text was first negotiated by States, and provided day-to-day support to the HSA in its advocacy with States and other stakeholders. 

We congratulate the HSA on its contribution to this milestone achievement as we look forward to States adopting and implementing the BBNJ Treaty.

The Withers pro bono team is led by New York partner Emma Lindsay and includes New York senior associate Jovana Crncevic and associate Tyler Goss.

Withers’ prior insight on the BBNJ Treaty negotiations and our team’s work is available here.

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


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