International efforts to better conserve the marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) through a new international legally binding instrumentFootnote 1 are developing in a context of established norms and institutions. Existing regimes already address specific marine sectors (such as shipping), regions (such as fishing in the South East Atlantic), species (such as whales), and even underlying customary international law and territorial concepts (including the boundaries of the “high seas”Footnote 2). States have agreed that they will not “undermine” these existing frameworks.Footnote 3 We seek to contextualize this commitment within the fragmentation of international law and the interaction between regimes.Footnote 4 We argue that international law-making should not be overly restricted by deference to existing competencies and mandates, which are fluid and asymmetrically supported. An inclusive and adaptive approach to existing and future institutions is vital in the ongoing quest for integrated and effective oceans governance.
A New Implementing Agreement and Relevant Regimes
Negotiations for the new instrument will address the marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction with a focus on
marine genetic resources, including questions on the sharing of benefits, measures such as area-based management tools, including marine protected areas, environmental impact assessments and capacity-building and the transfer of marine technology.Footnote 5
These elements reflect a long-standing recognition of unsustainable ocean use and management in areas that are not subject to the sovereignty of coastal states. Negotiations will thus elaborate a text that aims to improve on the status quo while giving due recognition to the role, mandates, and capabilities of existing global, regional, and sectoral organizations that already govern much of human activity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.Footnote 6
Shipping, fishing, and seabed mining are, at present, the activities of greatest concern for the marine environment and its biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.Footnote 7 Each is subject to some measure of regulation by an existing constellation of agreements, instruments, and decisions relating to ocean governance. These include sectoral organizations, such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Seabed Authority, as well as regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs), such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the South East Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (SEAFO), and the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO). Those organizations exist alongside bodies more focused on promoting and protecting the ecosystem within a region, such as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Other organizations address specific species, like the International Whaling Commission and the conference of parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). If the trade of certain fish products is restricted in order to, for example, deter illegal fishing within or outside national jurisdiction, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is also relevant.Footnote 8
Still other regional organizations, including the Regional Seas Organizations promulgated under UN Environment's “Regional Seas” programme, and oceanic conservation organizations such as the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic's OSPAR Commission or the Sargasso Sea Commission, may have broad mandates that cut across sectors, but with varying degrees of binding authority or responsibility for areas beyond national jurisdiction.Footnote 9 The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) calls for cooperation in areas beyond national jurisdiction, and the CBD's conferences of the parties have called for the expansion of marine protected areas. The CBD's new Nagoya Protocol provides a model for fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from both the use of genetic resources that originate within countries’ sovereign limits and the use of traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources.
This fragmented set of regimesFootnote 10 presents challenges for the negotiation and implementation of the new instrument. Before describing these challenges, it is important to note that our list of bodies relevant to the new instrument is not exhaustive. Nor do we provide an encompassing definition of the functions of each body. One of the perils of the literature on regime interaction is the essentialization or even fossilization of regimes.Footnote 11 For example, while only some of the existing regimes currently promote principles and approaches that have been identified as important for a new agreement, such as the ecosystem approach and the precautionary approach, this may change, even amongst RFMOs.Footnote 12 Regimes are not fixed, and an approach to regime interaction dependent on ex ante determinations of organizational competence risks entrenching positions instead of opening them to contestation and evolution. Yet we also consider that the mapping of different regimes can aid in understanding complexity, especially when asking how a new regime will affect existing obligations.
Strengthening of Obligations
The new agreement is likely to create additional obligations for states that are parties to existing agreements. For example, if the new instrument implements area-based management tools, the subsequent identification of a new marine protected area, sanctuary, or fishery closure could prevent a state from fishing in areas otherwise regulated by an RFMO to which it belongs, including accessing opportunities to reach its RFMO-mandated fishing quota. New environmental protections or protocols could discourage a state from sponsoring mining in seabed areas under the International Seabed Authority's jurisdiction. New rules for ships on speed, noise, routing, or other measures in specific marine protected areas could restrict vessels’ activities in ways that may vary from the standards issued by the IMO.
This situation can be generalized as an anticipated strengthening of obligations rather than as an imposition of conflicting obligations. By analogy, when states began to list marine species under CITES to restrict harmful trade, they did not undermine the Food and Agriculture Organization's mandate to promote the conservation and management of marine resources, but instead recognized the need to support conservation and management through multiregime measures. This enhanced the cooperation and coordination between secretariats, even when some states were members of one regime but not the other.Footnote 13
The following table depicts a nonexhaustive list of states that have been active in the BBNJ negotiations (specifically, those that made written submissions to the preparatory committee sessions), alongside a corresponding list of those states’ membership in selected intergovernmental organizations. Organizations include multilateral organizations addressing the global impact of a single sector and regional organizations addressing the impacts of one or more activities in a geographic area. While patterns of membership across multilateral organizations overlap closely (as indicated in the first two columns), in regional and sectoral organizations they are less aligned (as indicated in the next four columns). This is to be expected, but it also shows the complexity of achieving coordination through existing organizations with disparate memberships.Footnote 14 The momentum for the new instrument is justified in part by its potential role in encouraging coordination among regimes without parallel memberships.
The new agreement will also coexist with customary international law, which applies to states regardless of their particular treaty commitments. Relevant customary obligations include the general duty to protect and preserve the marine environment, which is also codified in UNCLOS,Footnote 18 as well as a corpus of “due diligence” obligations.Footnote 19 Indeed, there is already a robust set of environmental obligations in areas beyond national jurisdiction. What is lacking is implementation and compliance by states, and effective institutional support and oversight. The new agreement can enhance implementation by providing a venue for interregime learning and cooperation.
The Creation of a New Institution
A new organization's substantive responsibilities could extend to deployment of management tools, including designation of marine protected areas and promulgation and review of environmental impact assessments. It could also administer frameworks for marine genetic resource access and benefit sharing, capacity building, and technology transfer. Alongside these responsibilities, the organization would play an important role in coordinating and cooperating with existing bodies.
The work of such an organization requires significant resources, which partly accounts for differences of views about the desirability of empowering a standing institution such as a conference of the parties (COP)Footnote 20 or focusing on ad hoc coordination within existing bodies and frameworks.Footnote 21 BBNJ preparatory committee delegations have coded their preferences regarding these institutional models through oblique references to their support for “regional,” “global,” or “hybrid” models of implementation, or by trying to draw distinctions between “light” or “heavy” regimes.Footnote 22
Existing regimes illustrate such characteristics. The WTO might serve as an example of a “heavy” and “global” regime, as it oversees a detailed set of covered trade agreements that rest upon international standards from other regimes such as food safety. WTO committees engage in ongoing scrutiny of the standard-setting process, thus exercising a degree of oversight over exogenous standards. In trade disputes, panels and the Appellate Body make authoritative interpretations of these exogenous standards, even if they have not been supported by the entire WTO membership. The authority of exogenous norms is thus contingent, rather than absolute.Footnote 23 This example is relevant to the BBNJ context especially if compliance with the new agreement is linked to the provisions for compulsory dispute settlement in UNCLOS Part XV.
A rather weaker, yet still regularized, institutional form is the COP, which manages its relationships with existing bodies through decisions. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change COP, for example, has issued “safeguards” to ensure that forest-related emissions reduction policies “complement or are consistent with the objectives of national forest programmes and relevant international conventions and agreements.”Footnote 24 Yet the incentive for states to provide information about their compliance with these safeguards comes from their desire to attract climate finance,Footnote 25 which is a different scenario from the one currently envisaged for BBNJ.
Weaker still are ad hoc arrangements for coordination. For example, the United Nations Fish Stocks AgreementFootnote 26 encourages states to apply guiding principles and approaches within existing bodies without engaging in systematic or binding norm development.Footnote 27 Attempts to develop a coherent set of practices through processes such as the joint meetings of the five tuna RFMOs initiated in Kobe, Japan, in 2007, have not progressed.
Whichever model states settle on for BBNJ, institutional design in the context of regime complexity will require the ongoing inclusion of perspectives on shipping, fishing, seabed mining, and so on. As David Caron noted, situations of complexity require us to adapt and learn.Footnote 28 While states and international organizations provide important perspectives and expertise, the participation of a broader epistemic community and civil society enhances learning and information-sharing.Footnote 29 Although nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) do not have strictly representative functions, they provide networked ideas and knowledge that are essential to adaptive governance.
Part of the ongoing assessment of regime interaction in the BBNJ context will therefore incorporate the activities of NGOs in the development and ongoing implementation of the new agreement. This participation may give rise to concerns by states, who wish to retain control over law-making. Questions of legitimacy should not be ignored, and there are cases in which certain stakeholders are rightfully excluded from regime interaction.Footnote 30 But the credentials of NGOs in the BBNJ negotiations are supported by an open charter,Footnote 31 a scientific foundation, and a public interest orientation. Ongoing inclusion of NGOs will be important for the new institution's functions.
States likely will establish a new international regime to conserve and sustain the marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. Preparatory work has reinforced a commitment not to undermine existing global, regional, and sectoral regimes.Footnote 32 Such a commitment reflects the considerable intellectual, political, and human investments in existing institutions and practices. Equally important, however, is the recognition that the needs of the international community change and that regimes are not fixed. The instinct to divvy up existing competences and mandates must be checked, at the very least, by the recognition that the membership of regimes is unlikely to fully overlap. More broadly (and more compellingly, from a pluralist perspective of international law), developments in scientific understanding and environmental concerns will require laws and institutions to evolve and change. The BBNJ negotiations are an important moment for the international community to promote a dynamic, inclusive, and adaptive approach to oceans governance.