Multilateral Agreements and Oceans

Hari Srinivas
Continuing Research Series E-177. June 2022


he main mechanism available under the United Nations for countries to collaborate on a broad range of global environmental challenges are international agreements and treaties on the themes related environment, development, natural resources etc. Such agreements are called "Multilateral Environmental Agreements" or MEAs. The most widely known such MEA is the Paris Agreement signed under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

MEAs are agreements between countries which take the form of legally or non legally-binding principles and recommendations (or "soft laws")which countries are obligated to consider and implement laws and regulations (or "hard laws") at the national level to solve the problem, and meeting the requirements of the global agreements.

A number of such agreements and MEAs have been signed between countries related to the theme of oceans management. These address problems of global significance, such as fisheries stock management, ocean, biodiversity, prevention of land-based pollution, marine litter, plastic waste etc.

The following is a list of global agreements related to the oceans theme.

Law of the Sea Convention The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also called the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea Treaty, is an international agreement that establishes a legal framework for all marine and maritime activities. Currently, 167 countries and the European Union are parties.

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Convention on Biological Diversity The Convention on Biological Diversity, known informally as the Biodiversity Convention, is a multilateral treaty. The convention has three main goals: the conservation of biological diversity; the sustainable use of its components; and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources
World Heritage Convention The Convention links together the concepts of nature conservation and the preservation of cultural properties. It recognizes the way in which people interact with nature, and the fundamental need to preserve the balance between the two.
Ramsar Convention The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. It is also known as the Convention on Wetlands.
Water Courses Convention The Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, commonly referred to as the UN Watercourses Convention, is an international treaty, adopted by the United Nations on 21 May 1997, pertaining to the uses and conservation of all waters that cross international boundaries, including both surface and groundwater. Full Text:
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments and aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Basel Convention The Convention was developed in response to concerns about toxic waste from industrialized countries being dumped in developing countries and countries with economies in transition, and in the minimization of hazardous waste generation.
Rotterdam Convention Dramatic growth in chemicals production and trade during the past three decades had highlighted the potential risks posed by hazardous chemicals and pesticides. Countries lacking adequate infrastructure to monitor the import and use of such substances were particularly vulnerable. The Convention provides for a mandatory Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure.
Stockholm Convention The Convention was developed in response to the urgent need for global action to protect human health and the environment from “POPs”. These are chemicals that are highly toxic, persistent, bioaccumulate and move long distance in the environment. The Convention seeks the elimination or restriction of production and use of all intentionally produced POPs (i.e. industrial chemicals and pesticides).
Minamata Convention One of the latest MEAs to be promulgated, the Minamata Convention on Mercury is an international treaty designed to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.

Note that a number of regional conventions and agreements also exist, covering oceans and seas management, sustainable fisheries issues, prevention of land-based sources of pollution (including marine litter and plastic waste). These center around the Mediterranean, Caribbean, Pacific and other regional seas. For example, the Barcelona Protocol (Mediterranean Action Plan) calls on its member-states to take measures to prevent, abate and eliminate pollution of the Mediterranean Sea by dumping of wastes or other matter.

Other legal frameworks that focus on oceans and marine environments include:

  • Marine Biological Diversity of Areas beyond National Jurisdiction
  • International Legal Framework on Freshwater Resources
  • International Legal Framework on Marine Biodiversity
  • International Legal Framework on Marine Pollution

The dilemma that the above list presents is that the MEAs are implemented by national governments, while the problems oceans face are in the "high seas"* - beyond the legal jurisdiction of most countries. While many of environmental problems of oceans are human-induced (for example global warming) and have land-based origins (such as nutrient pollution), jurisdictional limits of a country's laws and regulations mean that issues related to high seas are ignored or are not acted upon.

A globally coordinated MEA mechanism is sorely needed for broader ocean management to build commitments that acknowledge the cyclical interdependences between our daily lives and marine environments - particularly in terms of habitat and ecosystem restoration.

* The high seas are the parts of the ocean that are not included in the exclusive economic zones, territorial sea or internal waters of a country. Thus, "high seas" are areas of the ocean for which no one nation has sole responsibility for management.

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