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Chatham House Rules-Style Forum on the Conservation and Sustainable use of Marine Biological Diversity

NOTE: This guest post was written by Morgan McMichen. Morgan is a graduate student at the Seton Hall School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Her specializations are in International Organizations and Global Negotiations and Conflict Management. Morgan’s interests are the function of international institutions in a global society and negotiation as a means of deterring conflict among multinational actors.

– February 28, 2017

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been making a huge buzz lately in many of the briefings at the UN. Likewise, they are incorporated into smaller forums and other meetings as a platform to push through some of the biggest initiatives on the table. SDG 14 was the topic of the February 28th forum. As defined by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: Life Below Water aims “to sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems from pollution, as well as address the impacts of ocean acidification. Enhancing conservation and the sustainable use of ocean-based resources through international law will also help mitigate some of the challenges facing our oceans.” The forum covered each of these points, but the overall sentiment of this forum was centered around prerequisites for crafting a treaty that would encourage all member states to comply and dedicate their efforts to the climate change aspect of SDG 14.

The group of scientists, professors, practitioners, UN officials, and lawyers discussed the particulars of the hypothetical treaty. Their discussion was comprised of the several points. First and foremost, it should be noted that the law of the sea, first created in 1982, did not include any environmental provisions, such as climate change, or provisions about things like piracy, as these were not seen as potential future issues. But they are very big issues along with many others. That being said, laws and treaties must constantly be reconsidered and renegotiated since circumstances and needs change. As sustainable development is an important topic in recent times, there is a global call for laws and treaties to reflect this.

What would such a treaty look like? Who should be able to say what goes on in the sea especially in waters hundreds of miles off any coastline? And who would police it and how would they do so? Drones or satellites is an option but a very expensive one, especially for low income small island states who are surrounded by water and are at high risk. As waters warm and sea life move north, should countries where these fish are native still have access to them even though they live in places like Norway and Iceland now? Will northern countries share with other countries? Or will conflict turn to war over these resources? And how do these newly introduced species change their ecology? These are examples of the pressing questions that were asked.

Another great issue brought up was the idea of a “legally binding” treaty. Does the “legally binding” aspect make it any more credible? How hard will the “bite” be if countries violate it and who will enforce it? One panelist brought up the notion that making it “legally binding” could hurt it because there are countries that will refuse to sign it for that very reason. However, if it isn’t, they may choose to follow it because of newly created norms by countries adhering to it as if it were the law.

The scientists of the group were pessimistic about the pace that the UN is in getting such a vital issue pushed through in a timely manner. The UN representatives bounced back with the point that the degree of progress which has been made is impressive given all the different stances and options of member-states when the discussion first began. When the UN encouraged the scientists to become more involved, the scientists asked how. They pointed out that they have not been invited to any of the planning or policy making and that the UN makes it very difficult for civil society and even NGOs to participate at times. The UN officials answered by suggesting the scientists lobby and work with agencies that are allowed in the discussions to persuade member-states.

The High-level Political Forum taking place in July of this year will address SDG 14 and the issues brought up in this smaller forum as well as address the idea of a treaty aimed at conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity. The aspects addressed in this forum illustrate the need for more exploration and analysis before the July forum. Such a treaty will need to be both inclusive and comprehensive. Having experts from different fields working on these issues promises a well-rounded approach for a treaty regarding SDG 14 at the July forum. Stay tuned for an update in July.



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