General Assembly: 47th plenary meeting, 76th session
As the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea approaches its fortieth anniversary next December, delegates at the General Assembly today laid out the urgency of using the international treaty to sustain the oceans, protect marine resources and shield communities facing rising sea levels.
The Assembly postponed action on two draft resolutions aimed at helping meet those goals until its Thursday session. The text “Oceans and the law of the Sea” was introduced by Singapore’s delegate, while Norway’s representative introduced another document on the protection of fish stocks around the world, “Sustainable fisheries, including through the 1995 Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, and related instruments”.
General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid (Maldives) said today’s meeting was a much-needed opportunity to bolster global action on marine conservation and sustainability as Member States prepare for the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon next summer. The ocean makes up more than 70 per cent of the planet’s surface and produces more than half of the world’s oxygen.
“Yet, despite its necessity for the survival of our planet and peoples, the ocean is increasingly under threat,” he said. The consequences of climate change are particularly worrisome, with small islands — or large ocean States as they could be called — bearing the brunt of this existential threat. “We have no choice but to respond to the needs of the ocean, and to do so through a multilateral means,” he said.
The representative of the Federated States of Micronesia said the Law of the Sea Convention established maritime zones in 1982, along with the rights and entitlements that flow from these zones. These rights shall apply regardless of the physical changes emerging from climate-change sea-level rise. His country is already facing many challenges, such as the saltwater inundation of its food crop sources and ground-water wells. “Even our dead are no longer safe in their burial grounds,” he said, adding that frightened children have to wade through water just to get to their schools.
Echoing that stance, the representative of Maldives said the severe anthropogenic pressures on the oceans may even cause some Member States to leave the United Nations, not by choice, but because the oceans have engulfed them. Highlighting that the Maldives islands bear custodianship of more than 90,000 square kilometres of Indian Ocean, she called for more climate financing to build small island developing States’ resilience. “We need to transform humanity’s current relationship with the ocean to ensure that our development does not endanger the planet’s most precious resource,” she said.
Delegates also voiced their support for ongoing efforts to develop an international legally binding instrument, within the auspices of the Law of the Sea Convention, that would govern the conservation of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdictions.
France’s delegate said that such a document on marine biological diversity would strengthen the Convention’s legal framework. He also expressed hope that negotiations on that document, stalled by the pandemic, would resume in 2022. A robust universal treaty can provide real value to protect the seas, he added.
The representative of Mexico, also supporting the resumption of negotiations for such an instrument, said that the operating structure of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf needed to be strengthened. The international community cannot ignore the fact that this debate is being held at a crossroads of humanity because of the climate crisis, he stressed. In this emergency context, speeches are only worthwhile if they are accompanied by concrete actions.
Australia’s representative, adding his support for an agreement under the Convention to address the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity, also emphasized that the Convention lays down a foundation for international peace and stability that helps all States carry out their rights and freedoms and comply with their obligations. That is particularly vital in the South China Sea, he said, stressing that Australia does not accept maritime claims that are inconsistent with the Convention.
In that vein, the representative of the United States called attention to the dangerous encounters between vessels meant to advance unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea and recalled the Tribunal’s unanimous and legally binding decision rejecting those claims. Conflict in the South China Sea, or any ocean, would have serious global consequences for security and commerce, he said.
China’s delegate underscored that the rules and principles of international law should be followed in matters not covered by the Law of the Sea Convention. However, the United Nations is not the right place to discuss the South China Sea, he asserted, underlining China’s consistent position on the topic. China has always been committed to resolving disputes peacefully, he noted.
Nonetheless, the representative of Sri Lanka, pointing out that sustainably developing oceans can define a new era of opportunities for coastal countries, underlined the vital importance of the Law of the Sea Convention. Being possessed of military power no longer assures rights in the ocean because of the Convention, he said, reminding the Assembly: “The Convention is the law that rules the chartered seas of today.”
Also speaking today were the representatives of Antigua and Barbuda (for the Alliance of Small Island States), Fiji (for the Pacific Island Forum), Samoa (for the Pacific Small Island Developing States), Philippines, Bangladesh, Peru, Iran, Canada, Monaco, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Republic of Korea, Japan, Costa Rica, Germany, Viet Nam, Pakistan, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, United Kingdom, India, Indonesia, Cuba, Nauru, Oman, Ukraine, Colombia, Iceland, New Zealand, Haiti, Greece and the Russian Federation. A representative of the European Union, in its capacity as observer, also spoke.
The representatives of Japan and China spoke in exercise of the right of reply.
The General Assembly will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 9 December, to take action on two draft resolutions on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, consider the report of the Secretary-General on global health and foreign policy, and take up the reports of the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) and the Sixth Committee (Legal).