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'Significant Steps on the UN Oceans Agenda'

Alan Simcock,

Head of Marine, Land & Liability Division

UK Department For the Environment, Transport &

 the Regions

'Addressing Oceans Issues:  Where do we go from here?'

Dr. Sian Pullen,

Head, Marine Conservation Programme


'Oceans & Seas and the UN System - Process Analysis'

Jon Wonham,

Professor, Department of Maritime Studies and International Transport

Cardiff University


Significant Steps on the UN Oceans Agenda

Alan Simcock

Head of Marine, Land and Liability Division

UK Department for the Environment, Transport & the Regions (DETR)


Oceans and seas were one of the issues high on the agenda of the 19th special session of the UN General Assembly ("Rio + 5"). Paragraph 36 of the Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21 spelt out the importance of the oceans and seas for the planet, and listed urgent needs.

The 19th Special Session also made  oceans and seas one of the main themes for the 1999 meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD).

To prepare for the CSD meeting, the Governments of Brazil and the United Kingdom organised the Second London Ocean Workshop in December 1998. The Co-Chairmen’s conclusions identified the main themes that needed to be addressed by CSD as fisheries, land-based inputs, improving the science-base for decision-making and improving the institutional arrangements for global co-ordination on oceans and seas.

On fisheries, the 1993 FAO Compliance Agreement, the 1995 FAO Fish Stocks Agreement and the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries represent real progress in getting agreement on the principles to be applied in achieving maximum sustainable use of the world’s fish stocks, while protecting the other components of the marine environment. The task is to implement these.

There have also been initiatives in various global regions to find ways of improving action to achieve sustainable use of fish stocks and to address the links between fisheries and the environment. These include the 1997 Bergen North Sea Ministerial Intermediate Meeting on Fisheries and the Environment, the 1998 Hawaii APEC Oceans Conference and the 1999 Hawaii Multilateral High-Level Consultations on Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Central and Western Pacific.

On land-based inputs, the 1995 Washington Global Programme of Action on the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities (GPA) sets out the framework for tackling the complex and wide-ranging problems in this field. Inter alia, it calls for steps to tackle the problems of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which tend to collect in the Arctic. Negotiations for a global POPS Convention are in progress under the aegis of UNEP. UNEP has also set up the Hague GPA Co-ordination Office to help implement the GPA, but progress is slow.

In March 1999, the CSD Inter-sessional Ad Hoc Working Group on Oceans and Seas and the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States considered the issues. The Co-Chairmen’s Possible Elements for a Draft Decision by the Seventh Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development on Oceans and Seas set out ideas that gained support in the working group for national and international action to take forward urgent work on fisheries, on land-based inputs, on improving the science-base for decision-making on oceans and seas and on institutional developments to improve co-ordination at the global level on oceans and seas. These will be discussed at the CSD’s 7th session on 19 - 30 April, 1999.

Other significant recent contributions to international agreement on action to protect the marine environment include:

the 1997 Noordwijk International Expert Meeting on Environmental Practices in Offshore Oil and Gas Activities;

the 1998 Guayaquil Intergovernmental Meeting of Experts on El Niño;

the 1998 Townsville International Tropical Eco-management Symposium, which is particularly relevant for the International Coral Reefs Initiative;

the 1998 report "The Oceans...Our Future", prepared by the Independent World Commission on the Oceans under the chairmanship of Mário Soares (Portugal) and published by the Cambridge University Press;

the 1999 Capetown Conference on Co-operation for the Development and Protection of the Coastal and Marine Environment of Sub-Saharan Africa.

National statement on policy towards the marine environment and other aspects of oceans and seas include:

Australia: Australia's Ocean Policy

United Kingdom: Cleaner Seas

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Addressing Oceans Issues:   Where do we go from here?

Dr. Sian Pullen,

Head, Marine Conservation Programme


Oceans, Seas & Coasts

It is horrifying to hear that humans have had an impact on the deepest and most inaccessible parts of the oceans - a recent article in a reputable scientific journal suggests that deep sea submersibles have "blinded" hydrothermal vent shrimp with their bright lights - in an environment that never receives sunlight.

In the past decade recognition of the threats to the oceans, seas and coasts has increased immensely. In 1992, the first Earth Summit addressed Oceans issues and Agenda 21 dedicated a whole chapter to oceans matters. An important development for the oceans, but not enough when it is realised that 71% of the world's surface is seawater and over 95% of the biosphere. Perhaps a little radical but, in 2002, at the 3rd Earth Summit will 71% of the outputs address oceans issues?

Along with increased awareness and increasing concern has come an encouraging proliferation of global agreements and conventions, regional directives and national legislation addressing marine conservation and sustainable use of the oceans.

Where do we go from here?

Since 1992, there have been numerous international and regional agreements concluded: the UN Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement, the UNEP Global Programme of Action on the Land-Based Activities which degrade the Marine Environment, a new Annex to the IMO MARPOL Convention addressing air emissions from shipping.....the list is long.

To date, however, progress in implementation has been very slow. One of the major reasons being that these new developments have financial implications. It is imperative that the world's governments and the UN pay serious attention to financial mechanisms to facilitate the implementation of all the "pretty words and commitments on paper".

In particular, the UN, via the GA and CSD, needs to seriously address the mechanisms by which "international co-operation in support of action at the national and regional levels in developing countries and those with economies in transition, including through the provision of financial and technical assistance and the transfer of environmentally sound technologies" will be achieved. Yet another commitment to make this a priority is all well and good, but action is needed now and action costs money and needs expertise!

Moving to the specific issues - the main recommendation for 2002 should be for all governments to ratify and implement the commitments made since 1992 on international fisheries and fish stock exploitation,  land-based marine pollution, offshore marine pollution, protection of marine bio-diveristy, integrated management of oceans and coasts, and networks of marine protected areas.

If every maritime nation implemented the commitments of the last decade then the future of the oceans and seas for the next millennium would be a major step nearer to being achieved.

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Oceans & Seas and the UN System - Process Analysis

Jon Wonham

Professor, Department of Maritime Studies and International Transport


Interactions between human society and the oceans are manifold, and the consequences complex and numerous. From the management viewpoint it is inevitable that different users of ocean resources are organised under distinct groupings each with its own highly developed regime. Thus governments work through United Nations agencies such as IMO and FAO in constructing legally binding frameworks and guidance to their members on such matters as sustainable fishing policy, safety and pollution prevention of shipping and related matters. This work is supplemented by the specialist input of agencies such as WMO on meteorological information, WHO on water quality criteria, IAEA on radiological protection and ILO on worker safety. The United Nations, through UNCLOS 1982 and Chapter 17 of Agenda 21, has provided an overall legal framework and a detailed action list for sustainable development of oceans and seas at the global level. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) jointly managed by the World Bank, UNDP and UNEP is an important source of finance for major aid initiatives in the oceans field, together with funds from regional development banks and national aid agencies.

Follow up to UNCED and actions on subsequent decisions of the CSD has been co-ordinated by the Inter-Agency Committee on Sustainable Development (IACSD), which for reporting purposes has drawn together the activities of all of the players in the UN system by designating task managers to compile periodic reports for the CSD. Because of its multi-faceted character, the task manager for the oceans has since 1992 been the ACC Sub-Committee on Oceans and Coastal Areas, the prefix "ACC" denoting that it has the backing of the Administrative Committee on Co-ordination, on which the heads of all UN bodies and specialised agencies sit.

The UN system draws advice from a group of scientists set up under an inter-agency mechanism known as GESAMP (Group of Experts on Environmental Aspects of Marine Environment Protection). Eight UN bodies (UN, UNEP, FAO, UNESCO-IOC, WHO, WMO, IMO and IAEA) designate members to the group according to the scientific disciplines and specialities required. Additional experts are invited to join smaller working groups spawned by GESAMP on specific issues. The cost of translating and printing GESAMP Reports and Studies is shared by the sponsoring bodies. The Group has provided diligent support to the UN system over the past thirty years, although there is criticism that being controlled by the UN and its agencies it is not subject to the degree of external scrutiny and transparency in its method of work that might be expected of such an influential force. In defence, it has the advantage of not placing any direct demands upon exchequers, which frees the governments from their normal concerns about money; it is relatively shielded from disruption and dispute which it might have if outsiders had some say in its deliberations, and finally (and most importantly) has done its job until now to the satisfaction of the UN system and hence, by implication, governments and society as a whole.

This Note has concentrated on the co-ordination of ocean activities at the global level. There are numerous institutions and programmes at regional and subregional levels dealing with ocean issues. Some of these are sponsored by the UN system, and some are constituted independently. There are difficulties of co-ordinating these with the work of global agencies in the context of UNCED follow-up, but this is wider in scope than can be addressed here.

Obstacles to progress are caused by fundamental conflicts of mandate. Difficulties arise when attempts are made to impose the outcome of a global initiative such as UNCED on to the work programmes of specialised UN agencies, each having its own constituency which collectively may have arrived at a completely different set of priorities to those identified in Agenda 21. Failure to co-ordinate internally on UNCED issues at national level inevitably leads to lack of cohesion on these issues within international organisations. Frequently an organisation will then present its work as if it is contributing to sustainable development when in fact it bears little relation to UNCED principles! It is not difficult to imagine that the co-ordinating work of IACSD and the ACC Sub-Committee on Oceans and Coastal Areas is greatly hampered if the secretariat members representing UN bodies and agencies have no authority to amend or modify their organisation's work programmes, nor necessarily bring to that committee any clear or unambiguous message as to where their organisation stands on an UNCED issue (or, indeed, whether it can contribute to any specific initiative). In view of this, current thinking on how ocean governance can be made more responsive to sustainability issues is not before time.

This Note is concerned principally with marine environment protection, with which the author is most familiar, particularly in so far as the work of IMO is concerned.

IMO has a number of items on its work programme that are scheduled for completion by 2002 and which clearly will contribute to sustainable development when finalised. These are:

- a new annex to MARPOL on preventing the spread of aquatic organisms and pathogens in ballast water

- mandatory restrictions on the use of organic compounds in marine anti-fouling paints

- a protocol to the OPRC 90 Convention extending spill preparedness, response and co-operation to substances other than oil.

- revision of annexes I and II of the MARPOL Convention dealing with oil and chemicals respectively, bringing them into line with technological developments and at the same time simplifying the texts, which incorporate a number of amendments since 1973.

Perhaps at the 21st IMO Assembly in late 1999 governments will upwardly revise the budget allocation for UNCED follow-up, which in 1998 stood at £27,500 and in 1999 was reduced to £23,700. This is out of a total budget for the organisation of 17.6 million in 1998 and 8.3 million in 1999, (see IMO resolution A.844(20), Appendix 3: Work Programme and Budget for the 20th Financial Period).


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