Historic High Seas Treaty

The long-awaited UN High Seas Treaty is hailed as “a landmark moment in humanity’s relationship with the ocean”.

06 March 2023


After more than a decade of negotiations, governments convening in New York City 5 March agreed a landmark United Nations treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of the high seas – those vast areas of open ocean that lie beyond territorial waters and collectively cover nearly half of Earth’s surface.

Secretary-General António Guterres has congratulated UN member countries for finalising a text to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, calling it a “breakthrough” after nearly two decades of talks.

One of the most significant aspects of the new treaty is how it will enable countries to establish new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) on the high seas – a crucial step in helping world leaders deliver against the 30×30 global protection target they enshrined in December’s UN Global Biodiversity Framework.

Another important element of the Treaty is its ambition to modernise environmental impact assessments (EIAs) by improving standards and bringing greater consistency to the way countries measure and manage the impact of human activities on the high seas.


“This action is a victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health, now and for generations to come,” said the UN chief in a statement issued by his Spokesperson late Saturday evening just hours after the deal was struck at UN Headquarters in New York.

The agreement reached by delegates of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, better known by its acronym BBNJ, is the culmination of UN-facilitated talks that began in 2004.

Already being referred to as the ‘High Seas Treaty’, the legal framework would place 30 percent of the world’s oceans into protected areas, put more money into marine conservation, and covers access to and use of marine genetic resources.

Mr Guterres said the treaty is crucial for addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

“It is also vital for achieving ocean-related goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework,” said the statement, referring to the so-called ‘30×30 pledge to protect a third of the world’s biodiversity – on land and sea – by 2030 made by a historic UN conference in Montreal this past December.

Noting that the BBNJ decision builds on the legacy of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Secretary-General commended all parties for their ambition, flexibility and perseverance, and saluted Ambassador Rena Lee of Singapore for her leadership and dedication.

Ms Lee is Singapore’s Ambassador for Oceans and Law of the Sea Issues and Special Envoy of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

She presided over this announcement at the Intergovernmental Conference on Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) at the UN Headquarters.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the ship has reached the shore,” Ms Lee said, announcing the agreement to an extended standing ovation in the meeting room. Delegations will reconvene later to formally adopt the text.

The statement issued by the UN Spokesperson said the Secretary-General also recognised the critical support of non-governmental organisations, civil society, academic institutions and the scientific community.

“He looks forward to continuing working with all parties to secure a healthier, more resilient, and more productive ocean, benefiting current and future generations,” the statement concluded.

Csaba Kőrösi, President of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, also congratulated the delegates and Ms Lee for reaching consensus on a global legal framework for the high seas.

“This is a massive success for multilateralism. An example of the transformation our world needs and the people we serve demand,” he added.



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