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The United Nations High Seas Treaty: A Briefing for Animal Rights Activists

Maliat Chowdhury


  • The UN High Seas Treaty focuses on marine genetic resources, area-based management tools, environmental impact assessments, and funding for capacity-building and technology transfer. 
  • The treaty outlines procedures for establishing marine protected areas and other area-based management tools to conserve marine biodiversity and habitats. 
  • Parties are required to conduct domestic EIAs on activities that may harm the marine environment, ensuring transparency and accountability for environmentally hazardous practices.
The United Nations High Seas Treaty: A Briefing for Animal Rights Activists
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On March 4, 2023, representatives from 193 United Nations (“U.N.”) Member States convened in New York to finalize the text for the United Nations High Seas Treaty (“High Seas Treaty”), otherwise formally known as the Agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. Adopted on June 19, 2023, the treaty exists as the first legally binding international agreement aimed at expanding maritime regulations to protect biodiversity in international waters. Its articles culminate nearly two decades of multilateral discussions between Member States, including five years of formal negotiations to establish the treaty’s objectives and purpose.The High Seas Treaty is heralded as a major achievement for marine conservation, signifying a new era of enhanced legal protections for wildlife globally.

The High Seas Treaty consists of 76 articles governing a range of issues from marine conservation to the sustainable use of ocean resources. In its preamble, the Parties acknowledge humanity’s duty as “stewards of the ocean” to protect its environment, ecosystems, and biodiversity for “present and future generations[.]" Guiding these protections is a set of shared principles, including encouraging “the use of relevant traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and local communities,” “[utilizing] an approach that builds ecosystem resilience . . . [to] climate change and ocean acidification,”and “[f]ull recognition of the special circumstances of small island developing States[,] . . . least developed countries[,] . . . [and] landlocked developing countries.” In essence, the treaty delineates the international community’s collective role in environmental preservation while emphasizing the value of incorporating indigenous solutions to protect marine life.

The treaty can be distilled into four main themes: marine genetic resources (“MGRs”), area-based management tools, environmental impact assessments, and funding for capacity-building and technology transfer. Part II of the treaty addresses MGRs, promoting fair and equitable access to MGRs collected in international waters.

MGRs are defined as “any material of marine plant, animal, microbial or other origin containing functional units of heredity of actual or potential value.” This section establishes, inter alia, guidelines for preserving digital sequence information and collected samples from MGRs in a shared repository, the creation of an “access and benefit-sharing committee” to oversee information-sharing, and the obligation for Parties to submit reports on their benefit-sharing protocols. These guidelines particularly assist wildlife conservationists because countries are now required to share tracked data on endangered species in a publicly accessible database, enhancing transparency and oversight surrounding the scientific use of marine animals.

In Part III, the treaty outlines Parties’ responsibilities for establishing area-based management tools through “ecologically representative and well-connected networks of marine protected areas.” Area-based management tools are tools “for a geographically defined area through which one or several sectors or activities are managed with the aim of achieving [the treaty’s] particular conservation and sustainable use objectives[.]” One type of area-based management tool is marine protected areas (“MPAs”), which are considered to be “geographically defined marine area[s] that [are] designated and managed to achieve specific long-term biological diversity conservation objectives and may allow, where appropriate, sustainable use . . . consistent with the conservation objectives.” This section details processes for proposing, reviewing, deciding, implementing, monitoring, and managing area-based management tools like MPAs, including during emergencies from natural or human-caused disasters.For animal activists, these provisions enable Parties to enact heightened regulations around certain marine zones, allowing advocates to call for greater protections for endangered aquatic habitats such as deep-sea coral reefs.

Part IV requires Parties to conduct domestic environmental impact assessments (“EIAs”) on activities that may harm the marine environment. It also designates procedures for implementing these EIAs. EIAs are “process[es] to identify and evaluate the potential impacts of an activity to inform decision-making." Article 30 provides a non-exhaustive list of the factors Parties must consider in EIAs to determine the marine impact of a planned activity, including the activity’s technology, duration, location, cumulative impacts, and less-understood effects. To supplement this analysis, Article 31 outlines necessary measures Parties must take to conduct EIAs, including a screening process, scoping process, impact assessment, mitigation plan, notice requirements, and expert review of EIAs if requested.This section is significant to the animal rights movement as it grants activists more transparency into environmentally hazardous State practices and enacts additional accountability for practices that violate international or domestic law.

Finally, Part V specifies Parties’ fiscal responsibilities associated with maintaining the treaty’s objectives. Article 52 establishes needs-based funding mechanisms to "assist developing State Parties in implementing [the treaty], including through funding . . . capacity-building[,] . . . the transfer of marine technology, and . . . other functions . . . for the conservation and sustainable use” of marine life.These mechanisms will be governed by a financial committee and will include a voluntary trust fund to help developing States meet treaty obligations, a special fund under Article 14 to support conservation efforts, and a Global Environment Facility trust fund (“GEF trust fund”) to aid projects. The special fund and GEF trust fund will specifically be used to “fund capacity-building projects,” “assist developing States . . . in implementing [the treaty],” “support conservation and sustainable use programs by Indigenous Peoples and local communities,” “support public consultations,” and “fund . . . other activities as decided by . . . the Parties.” This portion of the treaty will operate as the primary mechanism through which developing States can advance marine animal rights. Indeed, global marine animal campaigns can advocate to receive these grants, providing activists the opportunity to expand marine protections while securing vital resources to accomplish their shared goals.

Overall, the United Nations High Seas Treaty recognizes the importance of cooperation among States in international marine conservation, particularly as it relates to supporting countries vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. It also provides a basis in international law toward recognizing indigenous solutions as viable customary practices for ecological preservation. While the treaty’s success will ultimately depend on its Parties’ commitment to its principles and willingness to collaborate, its ratification signals the international community’s growing recognition of humanity’s collective duty to safeguard the oceans. If implemented effectively, the High Seas Treaty has potential to transform international animal rights advocacy and strengthen ecological resilience for marine life across the world. As legal experts begin interpreting its provisions, continued cooperation between States, scientists, activists, and indigenous groups will be integral to realizing the treaty’s vision and securing a thriving future for aquatic species and ecosystems.