Failing ambitions in New York: Is it too late for a strong Global Ocean Treaty? Part Two

“Ambition” is a lofty word. “High Ambition” is even more inspiring. However, ambitions, once set, must be achievable and, if possible, achieved. Ambition is not a “well, it would be nice if it happened” word; it is a “let’s get it done” word. A High Ambition Coalition sounds like “let’s do it, together.”

Yesterday, I wrote about the ongoing discussions leading up to a possible Global Ocean Treaty in New York. The talks conclude tomorrow. However, they have hit a major snag. The High Ambition Coalition for People and Nature, which aims to protect at least 30 percent of the planet’s land and ocean by 2030 (“30 x 30”) is faltering; and if it fails to achieve a Global Ocean Treaty (the coalition includes over 100 countries) then the 30 x 30 goal is literally dead in the water.

Ocean Extinction activists protesting at the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon in June this year. (Photo: Carlos Costa/AFP/Getty Images)

Now Greenpeace, which has been following the talks closely, believes “the talks are set to fail.”

Why? The organisation puts it down to simple greed. Back in June, at the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, UN Secretary-General António Guterres apparently spotted the signs. He warned against what he called “egoism” on the part of some countries, who apparently believe that international waters (the “high seas”) really belong to them. Pew Environment’s Liz Karan reminds us:

The high seas, which are beyond the borders of any nation, represent about two-thirds of the world’s ocean, but only about 1% of these waters are protected. International waters belong to everyone, yet there currently is no comprehensive legal mechanism in place to protect the high seas and the marine life that makes its home there.

The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Marco Lambertini adds:

“The high seas epitomise the tragedy of the commons…Because they don’t ‘belong’ to anyone, they have been treated recklessly with impunity. We need a common governance mechanism for our ocean to ensure that nobody’s waters become everybody’s waters – and everyone’s responsibility.”

A shark is hauled in as bycatch by crew onboard an Iranian flagged vessel fishing for tuna in the Northern Indian Ocean. These vessels often fish for tuna with 7 mile long gill nets, fishing with a gill net over 1.5 miles is illegal. Greenpeace is in the Northern Indian Ocean to bear witness to the destructive fishing practices of under documented fishing fleets which it is estimated cause the bycatch of 80-100,000 cetaceans per year.

Now, there is a huge sense of anxiety and urgency emanating from New York. Here is what Greenpeace USA has to say:

UN Ocean Treaty talks are on the brink of failure because of the greed of countries in the High Ambition Coalition and others like Canada and the United States. They have prioritized hypothetical future profits from Marine Genetics Resources over protecting the oceans. This is undermining progress made on Marine Protected Areas in the draft Treaty text, and talks are now set to fail.

The High Ambition Coalition is risking abject failure to deliver on their commitments to protect the oceans and finalize a Treaty in 2022. Not only are they failing to finalize a Treaty during this round of negotiations, but the text is lowering its ambition by the minute. We are facing a Treaty that will struggle to deliver 30×30, and takes an unfair and neocolonial approach by refusing to commit any finance for the benefit of all countries. 

Laura Meller, a Greenpeace Nordic oceans campaigner, said from New York: 

“The oceans sustain all life on Earth, but the greed of a few countries means this round of talks for a UN Ocean Treaty are now set to fail. The High Ambition Coalition has utterly failed. They should be the No Ambition Coalition. They’ve obsessed over their hypothetical future profits, undermining all the other progress made at these talks. Unless Ministers urgently pick up the phone today to their counterparts and hammer out a deal, this Treaty process will fail.

“Less than two months ago, I was in Lisbon, at the UN Ocean Conference, listening to these leaders promise they would deliver a strong Global Ocean Treaty this year. Now we are in New York, and world leaders with decision-making powers are nowhere to be found. They’ve broken their promises.”

“We are sad and angry. Billions of people rely on healthy oceans, and world leaders have failed all of them. It now looks like protecting 30% of the world’s oceans will be impossible. Scientists say this is the absolute minimum necessary to protect the oceans, and failure at these talks will jeopardize the livelihoods and food security of billions. We’re beyond disappointed.”

The lack of high-level political engagement in these talks has hamstrung them from the start, but it’s become clear in the last days that the High Ambition Coalition and other countries’ refusal to countenance any kind of financial commitments, no matter how small, will stop a Treaty from being agreed here. These countries include the United States and Canada.

A Greenpeace projection on the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York during the meeting.

Promises were made in Lisbon, but Greenpeace points out that the countries that attended that Conference “have not delivered on their commitments.” Greenpeace concludes:

There are less than two full days of negotiations remaining. With talks set to fail, countries must now take urgent action, show flexibility and find a compromise to deliver a strong Treaty text on Friday. Ministers must also call counterparts to hammer out a deal, or talks will fail.

Where is the Caribbean in all this, you may ask? Well, the High Seas Alliance noted on their Treaty Tracker page applauded our small island states – CARICOM as well as the Pacific Small Island Developing States for their commitment:

“We continue to applaud the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) and the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) continued leadership during this negotiation process, notably through their support of robust and ambitious conservation positions. As islands that are surrounded by the ocean, it is clear to them that this Treaty must move beyond the current status quo and implement real change on how we manage biodiversity of the High Seas.”

Time is running out! A demonstration in New York. (Photo: Alex Yallop/Greenpeace)

Meanwhile, celebrities like Jane Fonda (who is of course a seasoned activist) made an impassioned plea on YouTube at the start of the meeting: “We need a Global Ocean Treaty, and we need it now…Let’s set aside the politics and the special interests…Let’s get this done, for every life on Earth…”

Sensing that the talks were not progressing smoothly perhaps, Fonda and 46 other signatories – including actors Javier Bardem, Alec Baldwin, Helen Mirren, Michael Palin and other actors, filmmakers and activists – sent an open letter dated August 23 to the delegates at the New York meeting. Let’s hope it was not all in vain. Let’s hope they will recognise the urgency, and climb down – just a little – from their greedy, selfish “high horses.” This is not about them; it’s about the ocean – and humanity. If the ocean dies, we die.

Jane Fonda made a plea for the oceans, addressing the delegates in New York directly via video.

Delay means destruction. Billions of lives depend on a strong Global Ocean Treaty.

I hope it’s not too late. One day left.

Greenpeace USA activists project messages calling for ocean protection onto the New York Public Library. Text reads: ‘Delay =Destruction.’ Governments are meeting for the IGC5 negotiations at the United Nations to negotiate a new Global Ocean Treaty, which will determine the fate of the oceans. The projections urge negotiators to act and finalise the strongest Treaty possible.

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