Twelfth Informal Consultative Process on the Law of the Sea debates remaining and emerging challenges for Oceans and Seas and the road to Rio+20 and beyond

The twelfth meeting of the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process (ICP) on Oceans and the Law of the Sea was held on 20-24 June at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The ICP focused on evaluating the progress made with respect to sustainable development goals set at previous United Nations’ summits and consisted of plenary sessions and discussion panels, the latter open to participation by representatives of major groups. The meeting also aimed to assess the implementation of the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) [1] and hold a constructive debate on areas that need improvement. Moreover, an informal summary of the meeting’s outcome, to be drafted by the co-Chairs Ambassador Don MacKay (New Zealand) and Milan Jaya Meetarbhan (Mauritius), will be used as input into the preparatory process of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD or Rio+20), which will be held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. The informal summary will identify areas that are lagging and propose guidelines along which these may be addressed by the Rio+20 Conference. The co-Chairs stressed in no way the latter document should be intended as an official negotiated statement.

The panel discussions focused on four topics, the link between sustainable development and the law of the sea; the overview of progress and remaining gaps in implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development; new and emerging challenges for sustainable development and the use of oceans and seas; and the road to Rio+20 and beyond.

Panellists and speakers alike concurred and voiced their appreciation of the sustainable development dimension of the issue of the oceans and seas. Topics including poverty eradication, resource management and the interaction between economics and ecology were discussed. The centrality of oceans to the achievement of the three pillars of sustainable development, namely economic, social and environmental, was reiterated.

The dialogue also focused on the identification of areas of successful and lagging implementation. In this regard discussion converged around the theme of emerging challenges and issues including marine scientific research, bioprospecting, marine noise and plastics. Particular attention was devoted to how these challenges may be addressed in areas beyond national jurisdiction, where regulation is presently lacking. In this respect the relevance of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was called into question by Professor Scovazzi of the University of Milan, who said that this "legal gap" was a new challenge, unforeseeable at the time of the signing of UNCLOS. Professor Scovazzi hence called for the drafting of an implementing agreement tailored to extending UNCLOS’ mandate.

The representative of Argentina recalled the importance of capacity-building and technology transfer for the conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable management of the oceans. Many delegations manifested their support for this approach, calling for their promotion and lamenting the poor implementation of the related articles in UNCLOS.

Economic aspects were also heavily considered ranging from the examination of the redistribution consequences of changing fish migratory flows, to Professor Sumalia of the University of British Columbia, calling for the abolition of subsidies adversely affecting fish stocks and sustainable fishing.

The Law of the Sea and the Road to Rio+20

The last panel discussion focused on contributing inputs to the Rio+20 process, including by drawing lessons from past summits. The considerations voiced concentrated on how to ensure that oceans and seas receive the appropriate attention at the Conference and beyond, expressing the need to promote their inclusion in global, regional and national development agendas.

Ms. Cicin-Sain, launched her presentation by lamenting Rio+20’s lack of a manifesto vis--vis what had been the Brundtland Report in 1992. Calling into question the poor inclusion of civil society in ocean affairs, she expressed her concern with regards to both ICP preparations and UN Oceans’ meetings [2] not being open to civil society. Ms. Cicin-Sain stressed the relationship between oceans and climate change, voicing her support for the inclusion of oceans and seas in the UNFCCC negotiations, which to date has not been the case. Finally she expressed the need to formulate an "oceans package" to be presented at Rio+20, as an integral part of the Conference’s major themes [3].

The panel discussion offered many and diverse contributions as to what could comprise a potential ocean package for Rio+20.

Integration was at the fore of the debate. Ms. Cicin-Sain advocated for a package that would reflect greater integration in ocean governance expressing the need to overcome a sectoral approach and involve different ministries, at both the national and international levels, as well as establishing a lead agency, such as UN Oceans, to manage coordination. Ambassador Mesquita Pessoa, Minister Plenipotentiary in the Permanent Mission of Brazil to the United Nations, elaborated on the need for integration describing how the coordination and cooperation of ocean-related agencies and organizations must imperatively be at the core of any debate concerning an institutional framework for sustainable development. Several participants shared the view that in order to address policy fragmentation, linking the concept of a "blue economy" [4] to the existing and established notion of "green economy" was necessary, a view echoing the call for a more holistic ecosystem approach voiced by Ms. Cicin-Sain, among others.

Implementation concerned many delegates who regretted the failure to achieve many of the goals set by previous summits, such as Chapter 17 of Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation [5]. The Thai delegation reminded the audience of the importance of achievable targets, and several other delegations expressed the view that an oceans package for Rio+20 should concentrate on the implementation and enforcement of existing commitments.

A strong focus was nevertheless devoted to the discussion of emerging challenges and their consequences, with particular emphasis resting on the issue of preserving biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) [6]. Some delegations, including Costa Rica, the European Union and Trinidad and Tobago supported moving beyond mere enforcement and implementation and considered a reformulation of the existing frameworks. In this context it was agreed by most participants that pragmatic reform would be preferred to large scale institutional change, the latter incurring the risk of further policy fragmentation. Propositions as to which solutions to champion were plentiful and ranged from expanding Regional Fisheries Management Organizations’ mandates, to encouraging marine spatial planning, with Australia being commended by various Member State delegates on the progress made in this area. Panellists and representatives debated the need to push for an implementing agreement that would provide for an updating of UNCLOS [7], allowing it to respond to emerging challenges, particularly with regards to ABNJ. Revising the role of the International Seabed Authority as well as the establishment of Marine Protected Areas was considered, the G77 and China expressed the need for a specific legal framework for ABNJ to be considered at Rio, but this proved a source of contention and proposals as to how to proceed were counteracted by representatives of the Russian Federation and the United States voicing strong opposition.

Other suggestions included focusing on Rio+20 as an opportunity to enforce informed decision-making through regular assessment of implementation progress on predetermined goals. The latter would contribute to promoting the most effective policy tools, which would be identified through the use of diverse methods ranging from degradation costs calculations to market-based techniques. The renewal of commitments by the economic sector was also demanded. The European Union, Palau and the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) expressed the need for the linkage between the law of the sea and food security to be stressed at Rio.

Delegates voiced their satisfaction with the success of the ICP, and indeed many participated actively in the discussions. Nevertheless a shared sentiment among several delegations, and clearly expressed by the European Union, was that of the outcome being a "minimum minimorum," lacking sufficiently defined results.

For more information regarding UNCLOS, visit:
For the Earth Negotiations Bulletin covering of the meeting, click here.

For more information regarding “blue economy,” visit:
For more information on UN Oceans and their work, visit:

[1] UNCLOS is the legal framework for all ocean activities, established in 1982. To access the full text of UNCLOS, click here.

[2] UN Oceans is an inter-agency coordination mechanism established at UNCED, Rio 1992.

[3] The Rio + 20 Conference will be centred around two major themes: the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development.

[4] "The blue economy" refers to a term coined by Gunter Pauli in his book "The blue economy- 10 years, 100 innovations 100 Million Jobs" and refers to a new way of designing business considered a development on the concept of green economy.

[5] Chapter 17 of Agenda 21 refers to the chapter dedicated to the "Protection of the oceans, all kinds of seas, including enclosed and semi-enclosed seas, and coastal areas and the protection, rational use and development of their living resources", in the context of the Agenda adopted at Rio 1992. The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation refers to the document adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002. To access the document, click here.

[6] The activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction are regulated in UNCLOS by Part VII on the "high seas" and Part IX on the "Area."

[7] To date two UNCLOS implementing agreements have been signed, on Part XI in 1994and on Fish Stocks in 1995.

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