“We are naturally vitally interested in the sea which surrounds us and through which we live and breathe.” This was stated by Arvid Pardo then Malta’s UN Ambassador when addressing the United Nations General Assembly in November 1967 on Malta’s seminal proposal on the seabed and its resources as the common heritage of mankind.
The sea is our lifeline, yet it does not feature prominently in our policy priorities. As an island state, all issues relative to the sea should be at the very top of the country’s political agenda. It is with regret therefore that very little was said locally by government on the High Seas Treaty concluded within the UN framework earlier this week. This agreement, of crucial importance, is the culmination of negotiations which started in 2004 and builds on the legacy of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in respect of which Malta had a pivotal role through Ambassador Arvid Pardo.
Malta needs to rediscover its maritime vocation and be at the forefront of such international maritime initiatives and debate. In order to be proactive, we need a focused Ministry for Maritime Affairs which groups under one political head all maritime politics of relevance to the Maltese islands: ranging from the blue economy, fisheries and aquaculture to marine protected areas, the protection of coastal areas as well as ensuring that the Public Domain Act is implemented the soonest to ensure public access all along the coast and over time to reverse the commercialisation of the coast which has been going on for ages.
Once upon a time we had a Parliamentary Secretariat for Maritime Affairs. Nowadays maritime policy is a footnote to the list of Cabinet responsibilities, listed under the Ministry for Transport, but in reality, it is fragmented over a multitude of Ministries. In practice this means that direct political responsibility and policy coordination in maritime policy is rather limited. This is a pity as it is a policy area which has so much potential!
The new treaty seeks to counter the destructive trends which is faced by the health of the oceans, not just at present, but also, more importantly, for generations to come. As emphasised by the spokesperson for United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the new treaty seeks to address the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.
The treaty, concluded during the night between the 4 and 5 March, is crucial for implementing what is known as the 30×30 pledge of the Montreal Biodiversity Conference held last December. This is intended to protect a third of the biodiversity on land and at sea by the year 2030. This treaty establishes the legal framework required to start the long road towards implementation of the Montreal pledges, conclusions and initiatives.
The high seas begin where the exclusive economic zone of the different countries end, generally some 200 nautical miles (390 km) from the coastline. Comprising more than 60 percent of the world’s oceans they belong to no particular country. They are however under continuous threat from anthropogenic activity.
When the treaty enters into force, maybe, we will be a step closer to creating marine protected areas in international waters. That would be a historic achievement.
Arvid Pardo would be proud of such a moment. The best way of honouring his memory would be if we shoulder our international responsibilities, continuously protecting the marine environment which has contributed so much to what we are.
published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 12 March 2023