General Assembly: 48th Plenary Meeting, 77th Session
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General Assembly lauds success of Law of Sea Convention, but deplores sea-level rise, lack of support for small island nations, increased maritime risks.
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Speakers Underscore the Need for Legal Instrument to Promote Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity
Celebrating the forty years of marine multilateralism ushered in by the adoption of “the constitution of the oceans,” speakers in the General Assembly today underscored the need to continue that tradition with a binding instrument on sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.

In opening remarks, General Assembly President Csaba Kőrösi (Hungary) reminded delegates that the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea has given the international community a common language on management of oceans, from navigational rights to maritime borders.  The document represents multilateralism done right, he said, also calling on States to elaborate the text of a legally binding instrument under that Convention for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.  As a Māori proverb puts it, he reminded delegates that “we are all in the same canoe”.

The Convention is more relevant than ever, António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said, noting its near-universal acceptance.  Calling on the international community to end the false dichotomy between profit and protection of the ocean, he said that developing countries, especially small island developing States, must be supported, as they balance the need for thriving coastal economies with the need to preserve the ocean and its seas for future generations.

Delegates also heard from Albert Hoffmann, President of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, who said the Convention continues to be relevant to new challenges because of its comprehensive definition of pollution and system for the compulsory settlement of disputes.  Michael Lodge, Secretary-General of the International Seabed Authority, reminded delegates that from the outset, the Convention was a “package deal”.  Expressing concern over States parties promoting visions that radically change the rules of engagement, he stressed that such behaviour risks undermining the law of the sea.

Given such multilateral challenges, said the representative of Iceland, speaking for the Western European and other States parties to the Convention, as well as the United States and Liechtenstein, it is especially worthwhile to celebrate the Convention’s fortieth anniversary, because it is one of the twentieth century’s most inspiring stories of multilateral success.  Highlighting the legally complex challenge posed by sea-level rise, he said solutions must be found, in line with the Convention.

As speakers took the opportunity to reflect on the history of the Convention, they also pointed to the urgent need for increased multilateralism, including by concluding negotiations towards an international legally binding instrument, within the auspices of the Convention, that would govern the conservation of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdictions.

Rwanda’s delegate, who spoke for the African Group, pointed out that the current framework for the governance of areas beyond national jurisdiction is fragmented and inadequate.  Stressing the need to advance work on the internationally legally binding instrument on that, he said his Group is committed to negotiating a treaty text that is effective and implementable.

Jamaica’s representative recalled how his country, 20 years old at the time, was chosen as the location for signing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in Montego Bay in 1982.  Also speaking for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), he said the bloc is “keenly attuned” to the importance of the maritime environment, as small island developing States’ societies, economies and identities are linked to healthy oceans.

Singapore’s delegate, speaking in lieu of the President of the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, recalled that when the Convention, after adoption on 30 April 1982, opened for signature in December, it received 119 signatures on that day, eventually coming into force in 1994.  It put an end to a period of chaos and unilateralism in the rule of the sea, he said, but expressed concern that a few countries are seeking to downgrade the importance of the Convention, which is the mother treaty on the law of the sea.

The representative of the Republic of Korea, noting various global emergencies, such as sea-level rise and ocean acidification, pointed to the need for a careful and soul-searching look at whether the Convention is robust enough to address the challenges at hand.  It is ultimately up to States to develop new agreements when the gaps turn out to be too wide, he said.

Fiji’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the Pacific Islands Forum, drew attention to other important and eagerly awaited agreements, including a post-2020 global biodiversity framework.  He called on World Trade Organization (WTO) members to ratify the Fisheries Subsidies Agreement and highlighted the need to secure maritime zones against the threats of sea-level rise.  “UNCLOS must remain our compass as we voyage towards the next 40 years,” he said.

Also speaking today were the representatives of the United States, Guatemala (on behalf of States parties from Latin America and the Caribbean), Viet Nam (on behalf of a group of countries), Thailand, Singapore, Trinidad and Tobago, Poland, Spain, Chile, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Morocco, Dominican Republic, Austria, Italy, the Philippines, Oman, United Kingdom, Papua New Guinea, Brunei Darussalam, Guyana, Cameroon, Sri Lanka, United Republic of Tanzania, China, Bolivia, Norway, Namibia, Cyprus, Greece, France, Paraguay, Bulgaria, Brazil, Ecuador, Monaco, Argentina, Portugal and Türkiye, as well as the European Union.

The representative of Fiji spoke in his capacity as President of the twenty-seventh session of the Assembly of the International Seabed Authority, while the representative of Malta spoke in her capacity as President of the thirty-second Meeting of State parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The meeting was suspended at 6:15 p.m.  The General Assembly will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Friday, 9 December, to continue its consideration of oceans and law of the sea.