The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was adopted in 1982 and entered into force in 1994. It regulates all uses of the seas and provides the legal framework for international ocean governance. UNCLOS contains a special section on the high seas, but it prescribes only general protective measures. This is partly because the diversity of species and habitats of the high seas and their need for protection only became known after UNCLOS was concluded.
There are some international conventions that address individual activities on the high seas globally. For example, maritime navigation is regulated by the International Maritime Organization, and high seas fisheries are regulated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the United Nations Fish Stock Agreement. In addition to these sectoral agreements, there are regional multilateral agreements whose scope extends to individual high seas areas. These include, for example, some regional marine conservation agreements such as OSPAR or regional fisheries organizations.
At the beginning of the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) process, it was discussed for many years whether the protection of high seas biodiversity could be achieved through an extension of existing conventions or through a completely new agreement. The decision was made in 2011 in favor of the latter, as it became clear that expanding the mandates of existing agreements would have been very time-consuming and labor-intensive, and ultimately would not have provided the desired comprehensive protection of high seas biodiversity.
Entry into force
The official text of the new agreement has been available for signing at the United Nations since September 20, 2023. On the very first day, 68 states, including the Federal Republic of Germany, signed the new agreement. The joint press release of the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry for the Environment on the signing of the High Seas Convention is available on the website of the Federal Foreign Office. The progress of signatures by further states can be followed on treaties.un.org. The NGO group "High Seas Alliance" has created a world map on which the signatures can also be tracked geographically.
By signing, a state does not yet accept any positive legal obligations under the treaty. Rather, it expresses its intention to initiate the national ratification process and its willingness to be bound by the treaty at a later date.
The ratification process varies from state to state. In Germany, an implementation law must be drafted as part of the ratification process, which requires the participation of the Bundestag. Upon completion of the national ratification process, an official instrument is prepared, signed by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, and then officially deposited with the United Nations in New York. When the instruments of ratification of 60 states have been received, the new treaty will enters into force and becomes binding on those states.
Changes brought about by the agreement
After 20 years of international negotiations, the protection of high seas biodiversity has found a home. The new agreement will allow legally binding guidelines and measures to be developed and implemented, with implications for other conventions and bodies with a mandate for the high seas. The new convention includes numerous reporting and notification requirements on activities on the high seas that member states will have to comply with in the future. This information would then be stored and made available in a clearing house mechanism. This would for the first time provide an overview of who is doing what, where, and how on the high seas.