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Challenges & imp. provisions of the High Seas Treaty

GS 2 United Nations, its Bodies & Agencies Agreements Involving India &/or Affecting India’s Interests

In News

  • The United Nations (UN) recently reached an agreement, the High Seas Treaty, which is a crucial step towards saving the environment.

About High seas


  •  High seas are open ocean areas that are outside the jurisdiction of any country.
  •  The high seas comprise 64 per cent of the ocean surface and about 43 per cent of the Earth.
  • These areas are home to about 2.2 million marine species and up to a trillion different kinds of microorganisms, according to the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI), a network of global experts on oceans.


  • The high seas face many threats, including climate change, overfishing, and pollution.
  • They absorb heat from the atmosphere and are affected by phenomena like El Nino, which can endanger marine flora and fauna.
  • The high seas are facing acidification, which could harm marine life, and thousands of species could face extinction by 2100 if current trends continue.
  • Climate change is already influencing, and is being influenced by, ocean systems, and is exacerbating the pressures on marine biodiversity from unregulated human activities.

Governance of the High seas


  •  A number of regional, multilateral and global legal frameworks exist to govern the activities in the oceans.
  • The most important of which is the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), a 1982 agreement that has near-universal acceptance.

Rights and duties of countries

  • Among other things, UNCLOS defined The rights and duties of countries in the oceans, The extent of ocean areas over which countries could claim sovereignty,
  • and The legal status of marine resources.
  • In addition, it outlined a set of general guidelines for a variety of ocean activities,
  •  including navigation,
  • scientific research,
  • and deep-sea mining.


  • The treaty established exclusive economic zones (EEZ), which are ocean areas up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the coast and within which a country would have exclusive rights over all economic resources such as fish, oil, minerals, and gas.
  • The high seas are areas outside of any nation’s exclusive economic zone.

Shortcomings of UNCLOS

  • The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was established long before climate change and biodiversity became major global concerns.
  • Although it requests that nations protect the ocean’s ecology and conserve its resources, it does not specify the specific mechanisms or procedures for doing so.

High Seas Treaty:


  •  This agreement is also known as the “Paris Agreement for the Ocean.”
  •  The agreement was reached at the New York-based Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ).
  • The High Seas Treaty will function as a UNCLOS implementation agreement.

What will happen after its ratification?

  • Once ratified by member nations, the treaty will regulate all human activities on the high seas in order to ensure that ocean resources, including biodiversity, are utilised in a sustainable manner and their benefits are shared equitably among nations.
  • The treaty will be legally binding once it has been ratified.

Significance of the treaty

  • Oceans are an integral part of the global climate cycle and provide a variety of ecological services, including the absorption of carbon dioxide and excess heat, so this treaty is also regarded as a milestone in the fight to preserve the habitability of the planet.
  • This treaty is compared to the Paris Agreement on climate change from 2015 in terms of its significance and impact.


Key provisions of the High Seas Treaty:

The treaty has four main objectives

  •  Delineation of marine protected areas (MPAs), similar to protected forests and wildlife areas;
  •   Sustainable use of marine genetic resources and equitable sharing of their benefits;
  •  Initiation of the practise of environmental impact assessments for all major ocean activities; and
  •  Capacity building and technology transfer.

Marine protected areas (MPAs)

  • MPAs are designated areas where ocean systems, including biodiversity, are threatened by human activities or climate change.
  • These can be referred to as the oceanic equivalents of national parks and wildlife preserves.

Treaty provisions

  •  In these areas, activities will be strictly regulated, and conservation efforts similar to those in forest or wildlife zones will be implemented.
  • According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, only about 1.44 percent of high seas are currently protected (IUCN).

Marine genetic resources

  • The oceans are home to a wide variety of organisms, many of which are useful to humans in areas such as drug development.
  • Genetic information from these organisms is currently being extracted, and their potential benefits are being studied.

Treaty provisions

  • The treaty seeks to ensure that any benefits accruing from such efforts, including financial gains, are not subject to strong intellectual property rights controls and are shared equitably by all parties.
  • It is also expected that the knowledge gained from such expeditions will remain freely accessible to all.

Environment impact assessments

  •  The high seas consist of international waters that are accessible to all nations.

Treaty provisions

  • Under the terms of the new treaty, commercial or other activities that can have a significant impact on the marine ecosystem or cause large-scale pollution in the oceans will be required to conduct an environmental impact assessment.
  • The results of this assessment will be shared with the international community.

Capacity building and technology transfer

  • The treaty places a great deal of emphasis on this, primarily because a large number of countries, particularly small island states and landlocked nations, lack the resources or expertise to meaningfully participate in conservation efforts or to benefit from the beneficial exploitation of marine resources.
  • However, the obligations imposed on them by the Treaty, such as conducting environmental impact assessments, can be an additional burden.


Need of addressing details

  • The specifics of all the most contentious provisions have yet to be determined. Numerous issues remain unresolved, including the mechanisms for policing protected areas, the fate of projects deemed to be highly polluting, and the settlement of disputes.

The process of ratification is not expected to be easy

  • The treaty is the result of more than two decades of drawn-out negotiations. It took 12 years for UNCLOS to become international law because the required number of ratifications was not met. The Kyoto Protocol, the agreement’s predecessor, also took eight years to enter into force.

Way ahead

  • The agreement represents a once-in-a-generation chance for researchers and funders to use all available ideas and tools to preserve the health of the oceans.
  • In reversing our ‘out of sight, out of mind’ relationship with the oceans, the high seas treaty will enable us to reconsider how we utilise our ocean commons for the benefit of the majority.

Daily Mains Question?

[Q]Discuss the significance of regulating oceanic activities. How will the High Seas Treaty mitigate the threats to the oceans?