Statement on the Oceans and the Law of the Sea by Dr. Matthias G. Palsson, Counsellor
Ministry for Foreign Affairs
Dr. Matthías G. Pálsson
Item 77 (a) and (b)
Oceans and the law of the sea
5 December 2017
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Icelanders have for centuries based their existence and livelihood on the conservation and sustainable use of the resources of the sea, literally living and dying by the ocean. For this reason, healthy oceans and sustainable fisheries have been the core of Iceland‘s ocean policy for decades. We therefore place great emphasis on all international cooperation in this field, both here at the United Nations and elsewhere.
Accordingly, Iceland is grateful for all the work and assistance rendered by the expert staff at the UN Department of Oceans and the Law of the Sea, who handle their increasing workload with exceptional professionalism. The same gratitude extends to the members of the Committee for the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Iceland considers the work of the CLCS to be of utmost importance and would like to underline the importance of the Commission basing its conclusions on sound arguments and thorough deliberations.
Iceland further welcomes the Secretary-General’s appointment of Mr. Peter Thomson as his special envoy for the ocean and looks forward to working with Mr. Thomson.
We would also like to thank the facilitators of the three most important UN resolutions in the field of the oceans and the law of the sea this year, Mr. Andreas Kravik from Norway, who facilitated the Sustainable fisheries resolution, Mr. Thembile Joyini of South Africa who facilitated the Oceans and the Law of the Sea resolution and finally Ms. Kate Neilson of New Zealand and Mr. Pablo Adrián Arrocha Olabuenaga from Mexico, who co-facilitated the work on the new and important resolution on an international legally binding instrument under UNCLOS on the conservation and sustainable uses of marine Biological Diversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, often referred to as BBNJ. All of them have shown excellent leadership and dedication in reaching a compromise solution on their respective resolutions.
Oceans and the law of the sea has probably never been a more challenging, demanding and important field than now, nor more all-embracing as it seems to touch upon almost every substantive field at the UN. This is in large part due to climate change and other effects of human activities on the oceans and the need for the international community to react to this. Iceland sees the consequences of climate change in the changing weather and the retreating glaciers in our region, as well as in the rising ocean temperatures which have already led to changes in the migration patterns of fish stocks around Iceland, with southern species migrating northwards and northern species shifting even further north. Iceland welcomes the increased attention to the effects of climate on the oceans. Among the core aims of Iceland´s new government´s climate policy is 40% reduction in release of greenhouse gases by 2030 as compared to 1990 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2040. These targets are aimed at preventing continued negative effects of climate change on marine biodiversity.
The impacts of climate change are clearly evident in the Arctic; indeed, nowhere in the world is the increase in temperature greater than in the Arctic. A warmer Arctic ocean and rapidly decreasing sea ice may lead to the opening up of large ocean areas, previously covered by ice, for activities such as transport and fishing. Concerted international action is needed to protect this vulnerable part of the world. Only last week, Iceland together with 9 other parties successfully concluded negotiations on a draft Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. The novelty of that agreement is that it applies a precautionary approach, by addressing the challenges of potential commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean in the medium to longterm future. Iceland will chair the Arctic Council from 2019-2021 and the government has already decided to place the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, climate change and ocean affairs at the top of its agenda during its chairmanship.
Continuing the tradition of active and constructive engagement on all oceans affairs, Iceland participated with two ministers in the UN Oceans Conference earlier this year. The reduction of marine litter and plastics in the ocean were among our commitments for the conference. Governments, businesses and individuals must cooperate to implement our complex but comprehensive agenda, where work towards each goal can be key to achieving another; addressing climate change (SDG13) is a prerequisite to healthy and sustainable oceans, which again contribute to the elimination of hunger (SDG2) and poverty (SDG1).
There is already a strong legal framework in the field of oceans and the law of the sea, where the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out and the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement provides the legal framework for high seas fisheries and for the work of regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs). Within this framework Agenda 2030 and SDG14 provide a complementary guide for our policies and partnerships in this field. Iceland contributes to the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources globally through the UNU Fisheries Training Programme as well as capacity building in our bilateral and multilateral development cooperation.
Another landmark convention in the field of oceans and the law of the sea is in the making, following the decision of the General Assembly in resolution 69/292 to develop an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. The resolution also established a preparatory committee to make substantive recommendations to the General Assembly on the elements of a draft text of the legally binding instrument. This was no small task, as the future BBNJ-agreement will be an implementing Agreement under UNCLOS, highly complex and extensive in substance and will regulate the conservation and management of biological diversity in the oceans beyond national jurisdiction, in an area which covers the greater part of the oceans on Earth.
The preparatory committee held four meetings in 2016 and 2017, two under the chairmanship of H.E. Ambassador Mr. Eden Charles of Trinidad and Tobago and two under H.E. Ambassador Mr. Carlos Sobral Duarte from Brazil. Despite their able chairmanship and good efforts, for which Iceland wholeheartedly thanks them, as well as comprehensive work of the committee, the outcome of its work was disappointing.
The preparatory committee´s recommendations to the General Assembly in July 2017 included draft elements for the new BBNJ instrument as it was tasked to do, but clearly stated that there was no consensus on any of the elements. Nevertheless the committee recommended that the GA would take a decision on the convening of an intergovernmental conference, under the auspices of the United Nations, to consider the recommendations of the Preparatory Committee and to elaborate the text of an international legally binding instrument under UNCLOS. In a draft GA resolution which this distinguished assembly will consider later this month a decision is made to adhere to the recommendations of the preparatory committee and convene such a conference in September 2018.
Iceland has been an active participant in the BBNJ-negotiations and is supportive of further progress of this issue at an intergovernmental conference. However, there are varying views and unresolved differences on a number of core substantive issues in this regard, many of which have already been discussed at the UN for more than a decade. These differences will have to be resolved at the conference if there is to be a future for the BBNJ-instrument. It is therefore imperative that in the development of such an important instrument every effort is exhausted to solve the myriad of complex substantive and political issues and reach a consensus-based outcome. The BBNJ-instrument will define the future of the substantive issues which the resolution on the intergovernmental conference prescribes. However, it should not reopen issues that are already subject to a sufficient international legal regime and should (as prescribed in the draft resolution) “not undermine existing relevant legal instruments and frameworks and relevant global, regional and sectoral bodies.”
We cannot afford to rush an outcome on such an important instrument, we simply need to take all the time necessary in order for the substantive outcome to be of the highest quality and for all nations to become parties to it. These are the prerequisites of a successful and long-lasting international convention on the BBNJ.
Iceland has, as always, co-sponsored the resolutions on the Oceans and the Law of the Sea and Sustainable fisheries. We look forward to a challenging, while successful year ahead in one of the most important fields of the UN, the field of oceans and the law of the sea.
Thank you, Mr. President.
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