Preserving Our Ocean Legacy: IOI Honorary President Awni Behnam on the adoption of the new 'high seas' treaty

Statement from IOI Honorary President A Behnam

An international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) adopted in June 2023.

Dr A Behnam, Honorary President, IOI
Dr A Behnam, Honorary President, IOI

The long awaited agreement was reached after some twenty one years of a kaleidoscope of multilateral processes, frustrating dialogue and repetitive negotiations at the UN over that time-frame. Most individuals, institutions and stake holders date the start of that long process to the beginning of year 2002. I wish therefore to colour that perception.


In the nineties, after the entry into force of UNCLOS, Elisabeth Man Borgese, founder and Honorary President of IOI, was at the centre of a new and emerging international dialogue of globalisation. She was frustrated at the way that the Ocean and the principle of the common heritage of humankind within UNCLOS was being denied at international fora in preference to market solutions to Ocean challenges that were promoted by the rush to embrace globalisation. 


In fact by the beginning of the 1990s the Ocean was no longer on the sustainable development agenda; the neglect of the Ocean and the threats to the sustainability of its resources and biodiversity weighed heavily on Elisabeth's mind. She strongly believed in the critical need for a new institutional focus through a forum that would motivate the international community to address Ocean challenges and threats under UNCLOS including by providing capacity building for developing countries and countries in transition. This made her decide to launch a new initiative in 1998, then the UN-sponsored "International Year of the Ocean. She sought the support of the government of Malta and it's leadership and called for the creation of an open forum in the UN to consider closely the interrelated problems of Ocean space as a whole. She who knew so well the bureaucracy and culture of the UN system as a whole pointed out that the proposal was not aimed at creating a new institution but a mechanism to enable the UN General Assembly to make better informed decisions on Ocean affairs and the law of the sea. 


It was thus that the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on the Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS, later renamed the Informal Consultative Process or ICP) was born. This was a breakthrough in the process of building a global system of Ocean governance as the only body in the United Nations system with membership comprising the whole body of the General Assembly, Intergovernmental and Regional organisations, as well as major groups of civil society, and with the mandate to consider the closely related challenges of Ocean space as a whole. 


With her persistence and with the traditional support of the government of Malta, Elisabeth  put the Ocean back on the International Development agenda, the rest, as they say, is history. 


“I am very happy to see here Elisabeth Mann Borgese, who has been active in ocean affairs for many, many years and who I still remember worked so hard in order to secure this particular outcome”.

Statement by Mr. Nitin Desai, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs

31 July 2000, Doc A/55/274


UNICPOLOS now renamed ICP launched the dialogue in which civil society had a seat and, in 2002, the year of Elisabeth’s passing, the ICP stood a moment of silence in tribute to her. 


The meeting was opened by Alan Simcock (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), Co-Chairperson, who called for a minute of silence in memory of the late Elisabeth Mann Borgese, who had devoted her life to enriching humankind’s relationship with the oceans and actively participated in the work of the Consultative Process at its two first meetings.

2 July 2002, Doc  A/57/80


Thus the process that would eventually give rise to the ILBI on conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) launched its protracted sail into troubled waters. Through means of dialogue and working groups, in spite of acrimonious face to face negotiations, no issue was left behind and no solution left untried in a long-drawn process which saw the ultimate triumph of reason under the personal and inspirational leadership of Rena Lee (President, Intergovernmental Conference on BBNJ).


Today we see some similarities in this process with the earlier outcome of UNCLOS. Today too we see that post-negotiations, not all are equally satisfied with the final agreed outcome in June 2023. Considering how Elisabeth might have reacted now takes me back to her comments following the adoption of UNCLOS. After praising the achievements of UNCLOS in letter and spirit,  Elisabeth stated at the time that UNCLOS was not perfect since nothing devised by humans is ever perfect. This convention, resettled by political compromises,  concessions to greed and power and vested interests, left Ambassador Arvid Pardo (original proponent of the Area Beyond National Jurisdiction as Common Heritage of Humankind) bitterly disappointed by what be believed to be a delusion or even betrayal of his ideas. Elisabeth, on the contrary was surprised to see how much of Pardo’s original design had survived the wranglings of the political arena from which no concept can emerge in its virginal purity. While Arvid Pardo referred to the glass as half empty, Elisabeth, ever the pragmatist and optimist, believed the glass to be half full.


I do think that if Elisabeth were to comment today on the new ILBI BBNJ she would have had similar thoughts and a pragmatic approach. Hence it is now incumbent on us to put aside our differences and to implement the agreement in a consensus that can work.


IOI therefore commits to the fullest to support and the ratification of this legally binding agreement. To achieve this outcome, IOI shall continue to bring to bear the strengths of its more than 50-year commitment to Ocean governance, and its multi-faceted programmes of training, education and capacity building, Ocean literacy, academic knowledge, and global outreach. With an emphasis on the needs of developing countries and countries in transition, particularly through its global Ocean governance Training Programmes, the IOI Ocean Academy, and the global network of IOI Alumni, current and future Ocean Leaders.