Moving Forward to Protect the Oceans

René Wadlow
 Member of the Transcend Network for Peace Development Environment. President of the Association of World Citizens


On 4 March 2023, at the United Nations in New York, an important step toward the protection of the oceans was taken with the presentation of the Treaty on the High Seas. The aim of the treaty is the protection of the biodiversity of the oceans beyond the national territorial limits. These negotiations began in 2004. Their length is an indication of some of the difficulties of the issues.

The new Treaty on the High Seas concerns the bulk of the oceans beyond national jurisdiction and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The new treaty is a reflection of the concerns on the consequences of global warming, the protection of biodiversity, efforts to counter land-based pollution, and the consequences of over-fishing.  The protection of biodiversity is now high on the political agenda of many States.

The new treaty builds upon the negotiations during the 1970s which led to the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.  The decade-long negotiations, in which non-governmental organizations such as the Association of World Citizens played an active role, dealt primarily with the extension of national jurisdiction to include an “exclusive economic zone” under the control of the State holding the 12 nautical-mile jurisdiction.  The State in question could make financial arrangements with other States on fishing or other activities within the exclusive economic zone.

The 1982 Law of the Sea Convention was an effort to give legal structure to what had been largely customary international law by drafting a comprehensive legal treaty.  The Law of the Sea Convention also led to the creation of a legal dispute settlement procedure.

Some of the non-governmental representatives who participated in the 1970s negotiations warned of the difficulties arising from overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones, especially the EEZs around small national islands.  Practice has shown that our concerns were justified.  The situation in the Mediterranean is complicated by the close contact or overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones of Greece and Turkey, as well as those of Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Israel, all States with deep political tensions.

The current policy of the Chinese government and the number of war ships moving around in the South China Sea goes beyond anything that I feared in the 1970s. The irresponsibility  of great powers, their self-serving approach to international law, and the limited capacity of legal institutions to contain State behavior makes one worry.   However, there is a 2002 Phnom Penh Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which calls for trust, restraint, and dispute settlement by juridical means, so we can hope that “cooler heads” will win out.

Non-governmental organization representatives again played an important role in the creation of the new Treaty on the High Seas, even if there are still issues, such as mining on the ocean bed, left out of the treaty.  It is encouraging that there was cooperation among major governments – the USA, China, the European Union. There is still work ahead, and governmental efforts must be watched closely.  However, 2023 is off to a good start for the protection and wise use of the oceans.

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