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United Nations Conference Concludes with Call for Action to Restore Ocean Health, Protect Marine Ecosystems through Stronger Partnerships

The inaugural United Nations Ocean Conference concluded at Headquarters today, with Heads of State and Government and high-level representatives adopting a “Call for Action” to conserve and sustainably use the world’s oceans.

During its closing session, the week-long Conference also recommended that its outcome document — entitled “Our Ocean, Our Future:  Call for Action” (documents A/CONF.230/L.1 and A/CONF.230/11) – be endorsed by the General Assembly during its seventy-first session.

“We are mobilized by a strong conviction that our ocean is critical to our shared future and common humanity in all its diversity,” leaders stated in the consensus document, which recognized an inextricable link between the well-being of present and future generations and the health and productivity of the ocean.

“As leaders and representatives of our Governments, we are determined to act decisively and urgently, convinced that our collective action will make a meaningful difference to our people, to our planet and to our prosperity.”

Reiterating Member States’ commitment to achieving Goal 14 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, known as the “oceans Goal”, leaders called for urgent action by all stakeholders in a number of relevant areas.  Those included strengthened multi-stakeholder partnerships, more ocean-related education and greater resources for marine scientific research.

Broaching a major concern of the Conference, leaders called for accelerated action on marine pollution of all kinds, notably long-term and robust strategies to reduce the use of plastics and microplastics, and for incentivising market-based solutions for reducing waste.  Expressing support for marine-protected areas and other area-based management tools, they advocated effective measures to increase resilience to ocean acidification, seal-level rise and higher ocean temperatures, as well as to address other harmful impacts of climate change.

On the topic of fisheries, they called on stakeholders to enhance sustainable fisheries management and restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible; halt illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, address its root causes and hold those responsible to account; and strengthen capacity-building and technical assistance for small-scale and artisanal fishers in developing countries.

Decisive action was also needed at the World Trade Organization to prohibit fisheries subsidies which contributed to overfishing, they agreed, calling on the Secretary-General to enhance inter-agency coordination on ocean issues throughout the United Nations system.

Speaking in explanation of position after action, the representative of the United States said his country had joined in adopting the legally non-binding “Call for Action”, emphasizing the need to improve science and research to support implementation of Goal 14.  Reaffirming support for the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights, he said the United States did not support the reference to technology transfer in paragraph 12 and opposed language it believed undermined such rights.  On paragraph 13 (p), he said the World Trade Organization was an independent body and that the United Nations must not speak for it, reinterpret its rules or undermine its processes.  He also noted the recent announcement of the United States President to withdraw from or renegotiate the Climate Agreement.

The representative of Egypt said that implementing Goal 14 would require a solid basis of facts.  He regrettably noted that the language in paragraph 13 (g) did not meet factual standards.  He expressed concern over language that implied that the cause of invasive alien species was exclusive to human activities.  It was factually incorrect to limit the cause to human activities alone, when they included climate change, temperature rise, salinity and ocean acidification.  He expressed his reservation to that section.

The representative of France, calling the Conference a success, said it would be critical to crystalize all goals under the Paris Agreement.  France was fully dedicated to upholding that Agreement for the benefit of the world.

The representative of the Russian Federation said discussions held during the Conference had been productive.  On paragraph 14 (p), which referred to fisheries subsidies, it was important to consider the subject’s sensitive nature, ambiguity and range of issues pertaining to it.  There were hardly simple uniform solutions, she continued, adding that the World Trade Organization had the authority to discuss such matters.  As such, the Russian Federation dissociated from the relevant wording of that paragraph.

Making a general statement, the representative of the European Union emphasized the universal character of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which set out the legal framework of all ocean activities.  Although the European Union accepted the language in paragraph 14 (c), it regarded it as context-specific compromise solution.  A guiding principle for the Union was that there should be no renegotiation of agreed targets, and it would not be able to accept such language in any other context.  He stressed the fundamental linkage between the oceans and climate change, reiterating the commitment to the Paris Agreement and calling for its swift implementation.

During the Conference, a total of 1,328 voluntary commitments were received — from Governments, the United Nations, other intergovernmental organizations, civil society, the scientific community and the private sector, among others — to foster implementation of Goal 14.

The Conference also heard today reports summarizing the seven partnership dialogues held alongside its plenary sessions.  Those events focused on such issues as sustainable fisheries, marine research and technology, marine pollution, the protection and conservation of marine and coastal ecosystems, and increasing economic benefits to small island developing States and least developed countries.

In addition, the Conference approved without a vote a draft report of its proceedings (document A/CONF.230/L.2) that would be submitted to the General Assembly, as well as the report of its Credentials Committee (document A/CONF.230/13).

In closing remarks, Peter Thomson (Fiji), President of the General Assembly, said work had truly begun on reversing the cycle of decline that human activity had brought upon the oceans.  “I am confident the transformation of our world for the better is now well and truly under way” through the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change, he said.

Wu Hongbo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and Secretary-General of the Conference, said that for the Conference to have a real impact, follow-up action was needed.  “We have a long voyage ahead, but we have set off […] with a strong wind in our sails,” he said, saying the Conference had set a new benchmark for multilateral solutions.

Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, President of Fiji and co-President of the Conference, thanked the world for giving his small country such a big voice to amplify the concerns of small island developing States.  “These are not normal circumstances,” he said, appealing for more voluntary commitments to come forward.

Isabella Lövin, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate of Sweden and Conference co-President, said the event had been inspiring, with extremely productive partnership dialogues that shed light on solutions for saving the oceans and bringing sustainable blue development to all.  With the ocean now on the global agenda, “we need to keep the course steady”, she said, adding that Kenya and Portugal had expressed their availability to co-host the next Conference in 2020.

Partnership Dialogue

In the morning, the Ocean Conference held a partnership dialogue on “Enhancing the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by implementing international law as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”.  Moderated by Heraldo Muñoz, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Chile, and co-chaired by Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Minister for International Development and the Pacific of Australia, and Judy Wakhungu, Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources of Kenya, it featured presentations by Miguel de Serpa Soares, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and United Nations Legal Counsel; Michael Lodge, Secretary-General, International Seabed Authority; Biliana Cicin-Sain, President, Global Ocean Forum, Professor of Marine Policy, University of Delaware; and Florence Galletti, Director of Research, Law of the Sea and Environmental Law, French National Research Institute for Development.

Ms. FIERRAVANTI-WELLS, noting that Australia’s marine jurisdiction was the third-largest in the world, said the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was a starting point for building and enforcing an effective legal framework for the conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources.  Effective implementation of that Convention and related instruments — such as the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement and the Food and Agriculture (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing — were critical to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 14.  Describing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing as a significant challenge, she said implementation of the FAO Port State Measures Agreement would curb the flow of illegal fish onto markets.  Emphasizing the importance of capacity-building to improve the enforcement of international law, she announced that Australia would commit $4.4 million over four years to train Pacific Island officials in cooperative enforcement activities.  Australia strongly supported efforts to develop a legally-binding instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, she added.

Ms. WAKHUNGU, emphasizing the importance of oceans and implementation of the Convention to poverty eradication, said Kenya would support a platform to guide States on the measures they needed to take to meet their obligations.  The Convention provided for a framework for marine scientific research and the transfer of marine technology, issues that were important to developing countries that needed technical assistance and capacity-building.  Turning to the “Blue Economy” initiative, she said it should be addressed in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.  Kenya had embraced the Blue Economy as a top priority for creating jobs and ensuring sustainable business and economic models, going hand-in-hand with such infrastructure projects as the LAPSSET Transport Corridor linking the Kenyan area of Lamu with South Sudan and Ethiopia.  She went on to describe a start-up in Nairobi called Ocean Sole that was working with local communities to clean beaches and waterways and making products from recycled marine waste.

Mr. MUÑOZ, noting that Chile by year-end could establish marine protected areas totalling 1.5 million square kilometres, said developing countries would need to take the lead if developed States did not act as quickly as they should.  Several instruments comprised maritime laws, but countries must take an active role at the bilateral, regional and multilateral level to conserve the world’s oceans.  Today’s dialogue would aim to identify legal gaps, as well as challenges, to the implementation of the law of the sea in the context of sustainable ocean use.  Noting the presence of a “true plastic island” north of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) with a depth of 800 metres, he said more was needed to face marine pollution and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and marine pollution.  He went on to emphasize the need for capacity-building, technology transfer and financing to assist developing countries in implementing the Convention and increasing scientific knowledge.

Mr. DE SERPA SOARES said today’s theme was particularly relevant to the United Nations Legal Counsel.  As implementation of the Convention was fundamental to achieving Goal 14 — and indeed of all of the Goals and targets — raising awareness about it was critical.  Balancing the three pillars of sustainable development, the Convention set out a legal framework within which all oceans and seas activities must be carried out.  It was the basis for all oceans-related interactions between States, including their sustainable use of marine resources.  States had already undertaken important binding and non-binding commitments to meet the targets of Goal 14, but the effectiveness of the legal framework depended on the full implementation of its provisions and on improving State capacity to develop the necessary instruments in that regard.  He encouraged all stakeholders to work together towards a common purpose, stressing that the role of multi-stakeholder partnerships could not be overstated.  

He said awareness-raising of the legal framework related to Goal 14 was an important part of capacity-building that would allow developing countries to implement the Goal.  Additional awareness-raising in various forums could minimize duplication and fragmentation, and support an integrated approach to oceans management.  At the national level, those efforts were critical to the development and implementation of appropriate policies, while awareness-raising at the local level could draw attention to the relationship between local activities and national and global challenges in the sustainable management of ocean resources.  It could also bring widely varied stakeholders together around a common purpose, he said, pointing out that few partnerships currently existed that were specifically aimed at strengthening the Convention’s implementation.  He recommended taking advantage of ocean-related events — such as the present session — to forge connections between stakeholders and identify areas of collaboration. 

Mr. LODGE said that, in setting aside the seabed and ocean floor areas beyond national jurisdiction as the “common heritage of mankind”, the international community had undertaken a unique effort to employ those areas for equitable benefit.  Part 11 of the Convention laid out provisions aimed at the sustainable use of those areas, he said, describing progress over the last 35 years to make the Seabed Authority a “lean, efficient and low-cost institution” that exercised no more powers than necessary.  Pointing out that no State or entity had ever considered unilateral action outside of the Convention’s framework, he said the Seabed Authority was conducting 28 projects that involved small island developing States.  However, legal gaps remained, including the fact that universal implementation of the Convention had still not been achieved.  Twelve of the world’s 32 land-locked developing countries were still not party to the Convention, and, therefore, missing out on provisions intended for their benefit.  Additionally, 18 State parties still had not ratified Part 11 on areas beyond national jurisdiction, he said, stressing that States must identify the outer limits of their continental shelves according to the Convention, which relatively few had done to date.

Outlining a number of next steps for the Seabed Authority, he described efforts to develop a mining code reflecting the fact that seabed mining was increasingly seen as an important part of the deep-sea regime.  The Authority was also supporting the deeper participation of developing countries, many of which faced real challenges due to a lack of resources and other constraints.  Africa, in particular, was lagging, he said, nevertheless welcoming that the African Minerals Development Centre of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa was now working more closely with the Seabed Authority on the development of marine minerals.

Ms. CICIN-SAIN said that, as implementation of Goal 14, the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development must be kept in mind, as well as the need to implement the 2030 Agenda as a whole.  In the case of the oceans, implementation represented a coming together of the Convention, with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, 2002) and the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) streams of law and policy, which typically had been separate from each other.  At the national level, Goal 14 would require Governments and stakeholders to review ocean policy frameworks and reporting requirements. Sustainable development indicators established through the United Nations Statistical Committee would need to be improved and refined, and synergies found in meeting national reporting requirements.

At the regional level, she said, Goal 14 implementation could take place through coordinated action by regional fishery management organizations, among other entities.  At the global level, she cited three major challenges — weak or absent coordination mechanisms between ocean-related and UNCED policy streams, monitoring 2030 Agenda implementation and tracking the more than 800 voluntary commitments emanating from the Ocean Conference.  She announced the establishment of a Roadmap to Oceans and Climate Action, a multi-stakeholder initiative for analysing such areas as the Blue Economy, capacity development and the oceans’ role in regulating climate.

Ms. GALLETTI said there was no universal adherence to the law of the sea. While that might not be tragic, it did not facilitate matters.  Moreover, the current legal regime was fragmented into different sectors, such as mining, fishing or maritime traffic, that were dealt with by different stakeholders.  Historically, the legal regime was structured for resources exploration rather than conservation, although those two themes now were dovetailing.  Moreover, the law of the sea addressed only a small part of ocean biodiversity, mainly commercial activities such as fishing.  She went on to say that the law of the sea was not well known, including by regional institutions, citing a lack of research at the regional level, the long time needed to address law-of-the-sea issues and a lack of capacity.  Cooperation and coordination between States must be clearly defined, she added.

During the ensuing discussion, a number of speakers identified emerging challenges facing the world’s oceans, expressing a variety of opinions on how best to address their legal ramifications.

The Minister for Public Utilities of Tuvalu emphasized that the drafters of the Convention on the Law of the Sea had likely been unaware of the looming threat of sea-level rise.  As that issue was now threatening life on many small islands, including Tuvalu, a legal clarification was urgently needed on “migrating base lines” and the changing delimitations of exclusive economic zones.  Noting that sea-level rise had serious implication for his country’s claims, he requested that the matter be referred to the Legal Commission for guidance.

The Commissioner for Environment of the European Union, agreeing that a number of important gaps remained, stressed that “our world is changing and our institutional framework needs to adapt.”  In particular, he called for a new, legally-binding instrument for the management of areas beyond national jurisdiction and for the rapid conclusion of a legal instrument to prevent illegal fisheries from being established in the Arctic Ocean.

The representative of Greece said that, while she did not share the view of some States that gaps existed in the Convention, that instrument’s general principles might be inadequate to deal with emerging realities.  New rules should be established in the form of “Implementing Agreements” as laid out in the Convention itself, she said, adding that action should now focus on implementation gaps, while partnerships should aim mainly to ensure that States possessed the necessary capacities and infrastructure to implement the Convention.

The Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture of Iceland declared:  “We shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel” in order to ensure the sustainable use of the world’s oceans.  Indeed, the world already had the tools to implement Goal 14, in the form of the Convention on the Law of the Sea.  She stressed that what was needed now was that framework’s implementation, along with knowledge-sharing and capacity-building.

Even within the context of the existing legal framework, a number of speakers raised concerns about adherence to the Convention’s provisions. 

In that regard, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Timor-Leste — noting that the oceans defined the livelihoods, identities and limits of national sovereignty of many small island developing States — said the question today was how far nations were willing to go to abide by the Convention’s provisions and whether adherence was “a matter of principle or of circumstantial convenience”.  It was crucial that all States acted in solidarity, he said, emphasizing that the challenges facing the oceans “will affect each of us sooner or later”.

The representative of Indonesia — who also expressed support for the Convention — said that the instrument’s ratification should not be viewed in terms of the number of States parties, but rather the size of the ocean space it governed.  In that context, he drew attention to three major policy implementation areas that should be taken into account by all States, whether or not they were parties to the Convention:  marine conservation, fisheries management and pollution.

On the issue of the Convention’s “Implementing Agreements”, a number of speakers noted that two such agreements currently existed, providing specific modalities for managing the interconnected — but sometimes competing — uses of the world’s oceans.  Several delegates called for the establishment of new Implementing Agreements aimed at tackling emerging challenges or further clarifying existing ones.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of Barbados, pointing out that discussions were currently under way on a third such agreement, described the overlapping maritime entitlements of several Caribbean States in close geographical proximity to each other as one challenge facing the region.  She said the delimitation of boundaries often required specialized hydrographic and legal expertise, adding that Caribbean nations often lacked the human resources, technology and equipment required in that regard.

Also speaking today were representatives of Barbados, Togo, Honduras, Nepal, India, Trinidad and Tobago, Germany, Mexico and Cyprus.

Representatives of the Ship and Ocean Foundation, Observatorio Para Arrecifes, Wildlife Conservation Society, Commission for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Northeast Atlantic and the Children and Youth Major Group also took the floor.

For information media. Not an official record.