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World leaders urged to adopt ocean treaty

The U.N. leaned on star power in a renewed push for a legally binding global treaty in 2020 to promote conservation and sustainable uses of high seas.

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — The United Nations leaned on star power to launch a renewed push on Monday for a legally binding global treaty in 2020 that would promote conservation and sustainable uses of high seas covering almost half the planet.

Governments began negotiating the first draft text of a global ocean treaty at U.N. headquarters in New York, during the opening of the third session of an intergovernmental conference that runs through August 30.

“I’m confident that our common interest in providing future generations with a healthy, resilient and productive ocean will continue to guide delegations in their negotiations,” Miguel de Serpa Soares, the U.N.'s undersecretary-general for legal affairs, told the conference's opening session.

Oscar-winning Spanish actor and environmentalist Javier Bardem appeared nearby in Times Square, urging world leaders to adopt a global ocean treaty while an electronic billboard showed imperiled marine life. He also spoke to delegates at a conference in U.N. headquarters.

“Whatever happens during this conference will have a deep impact on the life of our oceans and on the future of humankind. Delegates must know that the world is watching as they negotiate towards a Global Oceans Treaty. We just can’t afford to get it wrong,” Bardem said in a statement from Greenpeace.

Bardem produced and starred in a documentary called "Sanctuary" by the director, Alvaro Longoria, that aired at the U.N. conference. The film is part of a broader campaign to create a sanctuary for the Southern Ocean, also known as the Antarctic Ocean, where Bardem dove in a submarine from a Greenpeace boat to view the seafloor earlier this year.

American-British actress and environmental activist Gillian Anderson also wrote an op-ed article published in The Guardian on Monday urging governments to set aside their "geopolitical differences and commercial gain" to protect ocean areas.

"Our oceans and the life they sustain are under mounting pressure from multiple threats, including overfishing, climate breakdown, oil drilling and plastic pollution. Quite simply, they are in crisis," wrote Anderson.

"This vast expanse of sea covers almost 50% of the Earth’s surface. If they get it wrong the treaty could entrench many of the worst practices that are impacting our oceans," she warned. "But if they get it right the treaty could pave the way for the creation of a network of ocean sanctuaries, making 30% of our marine world off-limits to human activity."

An 'obligation to protect'

Last year, delegates from the U.N.'s 193 member nations gathered in New York for a conference to create the first draft of a legally binding international treaty. A second conference was held in the spring of this year. The fourth session will be held in the first half of 2020.

The treaty is intended to strengthen marine protections on the high seas — international waters that are beyond the 200 nautical mile (370 kilometer) jurisdiction of coastal nations. Exclusive economic zones generally reach 200 nautical miles from baselines or the continental shelf.

Advocates say the treaty is needed to protect depleted fish stocks from illegal and under-regulated fishing along with deep seabed minerals and genomes hunted by businesses for new products.

They are campaigning for an international legally binding instrument under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, that would protect marine biological diversity in areas that do not belong to any one country. Such resources are referred to as Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction, or BBNJ.

The U.N. General Assembly agreed in December 2017 on the need for an international conference to hammer out a high seas treaty. Article 192 of UNCLOS says nations "have the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment."

Open oceans face mounting commercial pressures, however, in the absence of any effective or coordinated system of global governance to regulate areas beyond the control of any one country.

Negotiations this year are focusing on how to manage geographical areas, including the possible creations of marine protected areas; how to provide for access to marine genetic resources and transfer of marine technology; and how to conduct environmental impact assessments in international waters.