High Seas Treaty: Africa's role in saving the world's blue lungs

2023-12-05

The High Seas Treaty – officially known as the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty – must be signed and ratified by 20 September 2025. The treaty marks the first internationally binding global legal framework to protect the High Seas and areas beyond national jurisdiction. It aims to conserve and sustainably use marine biodiversity in this space, which covers nearly two-thirds of the world's oceans.

But Africa is lagging in the global endeavour to safeguard the world's blue lungs. A greater collective effort from the continent is essential for the treaty to work.

While the African Group of Negotiators played a crucial role in shaping the accepted text, this still needs to translate into ratification by African states. Since the treaty opened to state signatures on 20 September, 84 countries have signed it, but only 12 signatures are from Africa. African support is essential for attaining the 60 ratifications needed to bring the treaty into force. It represents the largest collective voting bloc at the United Nations (UN) with 54 member states.

Global treaties typically take years to enter into force, even when they result from global consensus. The High Seas Treaty needs a speedier timeline than the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which took 12 years to reach the 60 ratifications required, entering into force in 1994.

As the largest collective voting bloc at the UN, Africa's commitment is needed to bring the High Seas Treaty into force

There's much at stake for Africa, with its diverse marine life a vital resource for millions of people, driving economies and shaping cultural identities. Nation states in the international system possess the right to use territorial waters and the areas beyond national jurisdiction sustainably, as expressed in UNCLOS. But these rights must be exercised with an obligation to safeguard and conserve the oceans for the benefit of future generations under the principle of the 'common heritage of humankind'.

High seas (light green) and exclusive economic zones (white)

 High-Seas Ecosystems High seas (light green) and exclusive economic zones (white)

Source: Sumaila et al. In prep/Global Ocean Commission/The High Seas and Us – Understanding the Value of High-Seas Ecosystems
(click on the map for the full size image)

The High Seas Treaty can contribute to steering sustainable blue economies, harmonising economic growth with environmental protection. It can do this by promoting responsible fisheries management, equitable sharing of marine genetic resources with potential for scientific research, developing new pharmaceuticals and biotechnological applications, and tapping into ocean-based renewable energy sources.

Several African countries are championing sustainable practices through national blue economy strategies, and the Great Blue Wall initiative and other community-driven ocean-centred efforts should empower coastal communities to preserve their marine heritage. This would align with the vision of Agenda 2063 and steer Africa towards a sustainable and prosperous future. Recent research by the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel) suggests that every dollar invested in 'key ocean actions' could yield at least US$5 in global benefits by 2050. 

While the opportunities presented by this agreement are varied and promising, Africa must still contend with challenges to meaningful implementation. There's a need to increase awareness and provide more knowledge about the treaty's potential benefits and importance at multiple governance levels.

Global treaties typically take years to enter into force – even when they are the outcome of global consensus

At the national level, awareness campaigns and training programmes could educate government officials, policymakers, and stakeholders about the treaty's implications and advantages and chart the course for ratification so it can be expedited.

African states should also assess their existing national policies and legislation related to marine biodiversity and align them with the High Seas Treaty. This will involve updating and enacting new laws and regulations to ensure compliance with the agreement's requirements in close consultation with policy think tanks, academia, youth groups, and especially coastal communities and indigenous groups. African countries could allocate adequate financial resources towards the treaty's implementation, including funding for research and scientific studies, capacity-building initiatives, and infrastructure development.

There's also a financial hurdle, though – with limited financial and technical resources available to African countries to implement the High Seas Treaty's provisions effectively. Resource constraints make it difficult for many African countries to allocate funds and invest in the necessary infrastructure and capacity-building measures to implement the treaty. Power imbalances in international negotiations and decision-making processes may also challenge African countries in effectively participating and influencing the treaty's development and implementation.

Regional economic communities can facilitate treaty ratification and implementation at the regional level by providing technical assistance, sharing best practices, and coordinating efforts among member states. Collaborative regional efforts are needed to ensure the treaty's successful adoption and execution.

Finally, several actions can be taken at the African Union (AU) level that build on existing successes. This involves the AU Commission continuing to convene the African Group of Negotiators for capacity-building and awareness-raising initiatives, like the one it held to mark the 40th celebration of Africa's UNCLOS contribution at the end of 2022.

The High Sea Treaty aligns with sustainable blue economies, offering economic growth while protecting marine resources

These meetings have impacted the process by improving the knowledge and buy-in of key stakeholders, such as policymakers and government officials, about the treaty's provisions, objectives, and implications for Africa. Prioritising the treaty on the agenda and encouraging member states' active involvement in related discussions is essential.

The AU Commission can also advance capacity-building initiatives, leveraging the AU's Centres of Excellence to enhance scientific and technological capabilities in marine biodiversity research and management. These centres can play a pivotal role in bolstering the continent's knowledge capacity on the elements of the High Seas Treaty.

Such multilevel implementation will be challenging, but the Paris Agreement, which came into force in November 2016, 12 months after its adoption, ignites hope that the High Seas Treaty can be brought into force by 2025. This would pave the way for a sustainable and thriving future for the world's oceans.

If successful, Africa can bridge the gap between ideation and implementation of the treaty's aspirational mandate. Africa's commitment would safeguard marine ecosystems and yield substantial economic and environmental benefits for future generations.

Ilhan Dahir, Senior Researcher, Climate Risk and Human Security, ISS Nairobi and David Willima, Research Officer, Maritime, ISS Pretoria

Image: © Giuseppe Milo/Flickr

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Development partners
The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

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