A few days before the end of a conference in New York, there are still no signs of a breakthrough in the UN negotiations on an agreement to protect the high seas. However, diplomats and observers have dimmed hope that an agreement on a globally binding treaty could be reached by the end of the meeting on Friday evening New York time.

The countries of the world have been dealing with an agreement to protect the high seas for around 15 years, and there have been several rounds of negotiations since 2018. Last August, a conference was adjourned without result. The agreement aims to place biological diversity on the high seas under internationally binding protection.

Two thirds virtually legal vacuum

The aim of the EU states is above all to provide at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans with protected areas in the future. In addition, environmental impact assessments of human activities are to be defined. Two thirds of the world’s oceans belong to the high seas and are therefore largely unlawful.

The complicated negotiations between the UN member states in New York are currently dealing with the question of how to determine which parts of the high seas should become protected areas in the future. According to diplomats, China and Russia in particular are urging that this must be done unanimously – then each country could block any decision to set up a corresponding zone.

This is viewed as impracticable by Western states, among others, who insist on majority decisions. “A number of countries are also trying to maintain the status quo here in order to continue to pocket the large profits from fishing or the extraction of mineral resources in the future,” said Ralf Sonntag from the non-governmental organization World Future Council. “It is therefore essential that possible decisions cannot be blocked by one or two countries.”

Enormous profits possible

Another key topic revolves around profits and earnings that no one knows will ever become reality: Scientists hope that life forms in the deep sea, which have hardly been researched, and their DNA will lead to breakthroughs in the future, for example in medicine. Depending on whether this happens and how fundamental these advances are, they could yield huge gains.

Since these yields would probably be achieved above all in the scientifically strong so-called global North, a mechanism for compensatory payments to the South should be established. In this way, all countries in the world could benefit from the common good of the high seas. Exactly how this mechanism should look like is still a matter of debate

So far, negotiators from the West have found Russia to be very destructive in the talks. Moscow’s stance, which is also not part of similar international treaties, could amount to Russia not joining the treaty. China’s role, meanwhile, is described as somewhat more constructive.