Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

The UN High Seas Treaty in the Arctic Context

| Mar. 21, 2023

Editor’s Note: The Belfer Center’s Communications Team reached out to legal scholar Andrey Todorov, Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Arctic Initiative, to reflect on the recent agreement reached by United Nations delegates to protect biodiversity in international waters. 

The so-called ‘high seas treaty’ will provide a legal framework for the conservation and sustainable use of marine life in areas beyond national jurisdiction, which at present are largely unregulated. In the Arctic, the agreement will apply to approximately 2.8 million square kilometers of the Central Arctic Ocean that lie beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones of Canada, Denmark (through Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States – an area comparable in size to the Mediterranean Sea.

Below, Todorov offers his insights on the implications of the agreement for Arctic Ocean governance.

Although there is much work to be done to get the ball rolling, the Agreement is a historic milestone in humanity’s effort to protect the oceans. It requires signatories to enhance cooperation for conservation purposes, aiming to achieve a cross-sectoral effect and address cumulative impacts of human activities on the oceans. Since the Arctic Ocean encompasses vast areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), the new instrument will have a direct effect on the Arctic region and its sensitive marine ecosystems. 

One of the Agreement’s key implications for the Arctic governance is that it sets up an overarching institution – the Conference of the Parties (COP) – to fill in the gaps in the current marine management system. The COP is empowered, among other things, to establish protective measures (such as Marine Protected Areas or other area-based tools) provided, however, that it does not interfere with the relevant competence of existing global, regional, and sectoral bodies. Where such a body is non-existent, COP will be the only institution to step up. 

In this context, ocean governance capacities in the Arctic are significantly fragmented and limited. The adoption of the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement in 2018 was an important step forward to deal with issues of marine management in ABNJ. However, the region lacks a strong body empowered to take legally binding decisions to address the whole complex of problems related to marine conservation. Moreover, the Arctic Council and other regional governance frameworks are effectively paralyzed by the current breakdown in Russia-West relations. Therefore, if the Arctic states want to keep the regional marine management from slipping away to the global level, they should reverse current negative trends as soon as possible and work on building a robust and holistic regional system of ocean governance. 

Statements and views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Todorov, Andrey.“The UN High Seas Treaty in the Arctic Context.” Edited by Elizabeth Hanlon. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 21, 2023.