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Fourth meeting of the United Nations Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and Law of Sea meets 2 to 6 June 2003

To Focus on Protection of Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems, Safety of Navigation

NEW YORK, 2 June 2003 (Press release SEA/1770 from UN Office of Legal Affairs)

The fourth meeting of the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea opened today at Headquarters, and is scheduled to continue until Friday, 6 June. At this session, the consultative process will focus on the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems, as well as on the safety of navigation.

The Informal Consultative Process was established by the General Assembly in 1999 to facilitate its discussions on issues related to ocean affairs and the law of the sea. The Process was reviewed at the Assembly’s last session, where it was noted that it had contributed to strengthening the Assembly’s annual debate on oceans and the law of the sea. The Assembly decided to continue the Consultative Process for an additional three years.

At this session, the Consultative Process will review the report of the Secretary-General on oceans and the law of the sea (document A/58/65). The report contains information on the status of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and its implementing Agreements, and declarations and statements made by States under articles 310, 287 and 298 of the Convention. Further, it elaborates on developments regarding the protection of the marine environment and the safety of navigation, in particular, in relation to the aftermath of the Prestigeincident in 2002. Also, it addresses the establishment of a mechanism for inter-agency coordination and cooperation. The report identifies two main challenges for the future: to ensure that States comply fully with their obligations under the law of the sea, and to facilitate and enhance inter-agency cooperation.

In addition to the broad overview of the Secretary-General’s report, the Consultative Process will, as in previous years, focus on two main issues. At this session, the two issues identified by the General Assembly for the special attention are: the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems, and the safety of navigation.

On the basis of consultations with delegations and of an informal preparatory meeting held at Headquarters on 14 April 2003, the co-chairpersons for this session, Ambassador Felipe H. Paolillo (Uruguay) and Philip D. Burgess (Australia), have proposed a draft format for the session and an annotated provisional agenda (document A/AC.250/L.4).

The session will also have before it a paper submitted by Norway: “Marine environment, marine resources and sustainable use: implementing the ecosystem approach” (document A/AC.259/7). Finally, this session will have before it a paper submitted by the Netherlands: “The Need to Protect and Conserve Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems in Areas beyond National Jurisdiction” (document A/AC.259/8).

Report of Secretary-General

Protection of Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems

In the report on oceans and the law of the sea, to be used as a basis for discussion at this session of the Consultative Process, a marine ecosystem is defined as the sum total of marine organisms living in a particular sea area, the interactions between those organisms and the physical environment in which they interact. A vulnerable marine ecosystem could be defined as one that is particularly susceptible to disruption, to damage or even to destruction due to its physical characteristics, the activities and interactions of the organisms therein and the impacts they suffer from human activities and the surrounding environment. While some ecosystems may be fairly resilient and recover quickly from external shocks, others may be fragile and collapse at either slight or repeated stress.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea adopts a broad approach in dealing with ecosystems, requiring special protection, according to the report. While States are under a duty to protect the marine environment and conserve marine life generally, special measures may be needed to protect certain types of ecosystems. The Convention [article 194 (5)] requires States to take the necessary measures to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems, as well as the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life.

The Secretary-General notes that the International Maritime Organization’s “Guidelines for the identification and designation of particularly sensitive sea areas” describe “vulnerable marine areas” as areas that require special protection because of their high susceptibility to degradation by natural events or human activities. Additionally, in its report entitled “A Sea of Troubles”, GESAMP (Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection) identified a number of vulnerable areas and systems: coral reefs, wetlands, sea grass beds, coastal lagoons, mangroves, shorelines, watersheds, estuaries, small islands, continental shelves and semi-enclosed seas. Other examples include: habitats of endangered species, spawning and nursery areas, feeding grounds, seamounts, hydrothermal vents and polar regions. Since vulnerability is a function of the specific physical, as well as ecological characteristics of an area, ecosystems that are not generally considered vulnerable may be considered as such in specific locations.

The Secretary-General’s report addresses the various threats to vulnerable marine ecosystems, including land-based activities, overexploitation of fish stocks and destructive fishing practices, sea-based activities, marine scientific research, and global climate change. It also deals with legal and policy frameworks for the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems, and management approaches and tools to protect vulnerable marine and coastal ecosystems.

Safety of Navigation

In his report, the Secretary-General notes that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea balances the right of the flag State to exercise its rights of navigation with its duty to ensure that any ships flying its flag are safe for navigation. Article 94 sets out several measures which the flag State is required to take in order to ensure safety at sea. Ships must be constructed and equipped in conformity with generally accepted international regulations, procedures and practices and must be seaworthy. Each ship must be surveyed by a qualified surveyor before registration and at appropriate intervals thereafter. It must have on board such charts, nautical publications and navigational equipment and instruments as are appropriate for the safe navigation of the ship. With respect to manning, labour conditions and the training of crews, the flag State must ensure that its measures conform to generally accepted international regulations, procedures and practices.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the intergovernmental organization with the recognized mandate in the field of safety of navigation and the prevention of marine pollution from vessels. Most recently, its mandate has expanded to the field of maritime security. Therefore, most of the measures required will have been developed by IMO. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has adopted measures relating to labour conditions, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has developed measures relating to the transport of nuclear material.

The Secretary-General notes that while the flag State bears primary responsibility for ensuring safety at sea, the coastal State also has certain responsibilities, as well. For example, coastal States must give appropriate publicity to any danger to navigation of which they have knowledge within their territorial sea (article 24 (2)), in archipelagic waters (article 52); in straits used for international navigation (article 44), and within archipelagic sea lanes (article 54). While the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea grants coastal States a discretionary right to establish sea lanes or traffic separation schemes within their territorial seas, article 211 requires all States to promote the adoption of routing systems designed to minimize the threat of accidents, which might cause pollution of the marine environment.

While the main responsibility for safety of navigation falls to the flag State, the recent developments such as accidents at sea -- most notably the sinking of fuel tanker the Prestige off the coast of Spain and the call by some States, including those of the European Union, for the adoption of more strict measures -- have demonstrated that some States are no longer willing to leave the responsibility for safe navigation to the flag State alone. An ageing world oil tanker fleet, inadequate ship construction standards, ineffective flag State implementation, the increasing volume of hazardous and dangerous goods being transported by sea, as well as recent oil spills, have been cited as some of the reasons why ships should not be able to exercise unconditional rights of navigation and why they should be subjected to more control by the coastal State.

The Secretary-General’s report identifies a number of issues impacting on the safety of navigation, including ship construction; training of crew and labour conditions; transport of goods and passengers, as well as regulations governing the transport of dangerous goods; routing and nautical charts; and implementation and enforcement, whether by the flag State or the coastal State.

Annotated Agenda

According to the annotated agenda for this session of the Consultative Process, two discussion panels will deal with the two issues before the Consultative Process.

Discussion Panel A will deal with safety of navigation, for example, capacity-building for the production of nautical charts. The Panel will address, among other things: what capacity-building is required for the production, updating and standardization of nautical charts? What are global and regional organizations doing to enhance the safety of navigation? And what are some examples of the relationship between the safety of navigation and the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems?

Discussion Panel B will deal with the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems. The Panel will address the key threats to the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems and further global and regional coordination and cooperation that might be needed to reduce these threats. It will also question the adequacy of available information and knowledge about these ecosystems and the threats to them. Furthermore, it will examine the necessary coordination and cooperation required to assist States to ensure the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems.

Paper Submitted by Norway

The document submitted by Norway, Marine environment, marine resources and sustainable use: implementing the ecosystem approach, discusses the implications and challenges of the integrated ecosystem approach to management in order to conserve the marine biological diversity and its intrinsic value.

The paper notes that both United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea and the 1995 United Nations Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement require conservation and management measures to be based on the best scientific evidence available. Implementation of ecosystem management requires the definition of objectives and identification, assessment and acceptance of the knowledge base for management decisions. The paper recalls Norway’s activities in its initial phase of implementing an ecosystem approach to the management of human activities in the Barents Sea.

With respect to developing countries, the paper states that these countries face the greatest challenge, as ecosystem management must, in many cases, be implemented with limited capacity in terms of finances, organization and human resources. Therefore, it is crucial to develop approaches that make it possible to implement an ecosystem approach based on specific local conditions and local capacities.

Paper Submitted by Netherlands

The paper submitted by the Netherlands, titled the Need to Protect and Conserve Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems in Areas beyond National Jurisdiction, addresses specifically the need to protect and conserve vulnerable marine ecosystems in areas beyond national jurisdiction (the high seas). It provides examples of such ecosystems; the threats posed to them (for example, fishing activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction); the legal framework and applicable principles (mainly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Convention on Biodiversity), as well as some of the main management tools for protection.

Finally, the paper identifies areas of the current legal framework that may be in need of strengthening. For example, it adopts a precautionary approach in supporting that the absence of adequate scientific information should not be used as a reason for postponing or failing to take conservation and management measures.