Statement by Counsellor and Legal Adviser, Anna Pála Sverrisdóttir
General Assembly 77th session, 09 December 2022
Agenda Items 72 (a) and (b): Oceans and the law of the sea
Allow me to start off today with a quote. It is from a recent book called “On Time and Water”, by Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason:
“The earliest written records of humans date back five thousand years, events that happened practically yesterday. Humanity first emerged the day before that, in comparison to the ocean’s fifty-million-year history.”
This quote is a humbling reminder to humanity. The history of humanity is a short moment in time, when compared to the history of the Ocean. Life on Earth started in the Ocean, and it continues to support life. Humanity, in contrast, has not supported the Ocean sufficiently in return. This must change. Life on Earth depends on it.
We stress, in this context, that the Ocean is not only important to island States, such as Iceland. It is of fundamental importance to all States. The Ocean has provided people with what seemed to be, for a long time, an endless supply of food. It provides routes for international transportation and communication; influences weather and climate and is in many ways the most important part of our planet. A healthy ocean is the key to a healthy planet. Iceland sees the two annual General Assembly draft Resolutions we are discussing here today, (on Sustainable Fisheries and on Oceans and the Law of the Sea) as continued steps in that direction.
Yesterday we joined together in celebrating the 40th anniversary of UNCLOS, the Constitution of the Ocean and one of the UN’s greatest achievements. An achievement which too often is taken for granted. It is a fantastic inspiration, that through constructive multilateral engagement, delegations were able to construct this legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out.
The celebration yesterday was a great way to end the “Super Year of the Ocean”. It started with the United Nations Environment Assembly holding its most successful session since its establishment in Rio in 2012. The resolution on a legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution was a great achievement, and we welcome the first session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee which took place only last week. Iceland looks forward to an internationally binding treaty becoming a reality.
In the field of fisheries, the adoption of the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies by the World Trade Organization was an important step towards the goal to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies, which contribute to overcapacity, overfishing and IUU fishing. We would like to use this opportunity to encourage States to join us in becoming party to the Agreement. Although negotiations continue, on the outstanding issues on fisheries subsidies, we believe that this is an important milestone, and we are grateful to those States which constructively engaged to get this far.
The resumption of in-person meetings this year, meant it finally became possible to hold the long awaited fourth session of the BBNJ Intergovernmental Conference. Although there were still significant restraints to the format due to lingering remnants of the pandemic, the fourth session brought with it a different tone to these negotiations than had previously been seen. Things were finally moving, although slowly.
The fifth session of the Intergovernmental Conference, held last August, built on the momentum gathered at the fourth session and proved to be a long-awaited turning point. Delegations arrived here in New York ready to engage constructively to find much needed compromises. As a result, more progress was made during these two weeks than the decade before them. Unfortunately, we ran out of time. But Iceland is certain that if we preserve the progress made and continue on this path of constructive engagement, a new agreement will be the long-awaited result of the resumed fifth session in February and March next year.
A highlight of this year was the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, under the able leadership of Kenya and Portugal. Iceland was represented there at the highest level, underscoring the importance Iceland attaches to ocean affairs. Iceland, along with Singapore, had the honour of co-chairing the interactive dialogue on the international law aspects, as reflected in UNCLOS, and we thank all those who contributed to fruitful exchange at the dialogue.
It is the hope of Iceland that the Ocean Conference, as well as other major events this year, will prove to have been a gamechanger in terms of the attention, finance, and implementation the ocean receives going forward. Sustainable Development Goal 14 unfortunately continues to be significantly under-funded, and yet it is a prerequisite for achieving other goals.
The same applies to SDG5, on Gender Equality and Empowerment of all Women and Girls. In Iceland, like elsewhere in the world, gender stereotypes remain a challenge in our interaction with the Ocean. Both the decisions - and the profits, where applicable – are more likely to be made by men. But let me be clear that in order to achieve the SDGs on life under water, as well as on gender equality; we need people of all genders in positions of power.
Climate change remains an existential threat. The ocean has mitigated much of our past inaction by proving to be an ever-important carbon sink. It is, however, unclear for how long it can continue to serve that function without our aid. This important function of the ocean has not been without cost. Ocean acidification, caused by carbon emissions and the burning of fossil fuels, continues to threaten marine biodiversity and is happening faster than the average in the cold, Arctic waters around Iceland.
Carbon emissions and the burning of fossil fuels are also contributing to sea level rise; an ever-looming threat which requires our attention. It will be a challenge to deal with, in the context of UNCLOS, but together we will find solutions. Small island developing states and vulnerable low-lying coastal communities, should not carry the burden of a situation they have done the least to contribute to.
In the context of climate change, Iceland welcomes the addition of language on the importance of the so-called “Blue Food” to the Ocean and law of the sea resolution - and the acknowledgement that a healthy ocean is an important source of nutrition for billions of people. The inclusion of aquatic and blue food in food systems transformation will contribute to lower emissions and a more climate friendly future of foods.
Moreover, blue food systems support livelihoods around the world. The FAO estimates that 800 million livelihoods are supported by blue food systems. The importance of this is reflected in Iceland's international development policy. The policy mandates that Icelandic authorities shall contribute towards improving the livelihoods and resilience of impoverished societies that rely on fisheries by building capabilities and knowledge for fishing and fish processing.
Icelanders firmly believe that science needs to underpin all aspects of ocean governance and activities. We therefore express our appreciation to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO for its coordination of ongoing work on the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.
2022 will not only be remembered as “the Super Year of the Ocean”, but the year we were able to step out of the constraints of the pandemic and finally meet again face to face with colleagues from around the world.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues for their constructive engagement during negotiations on these two resolutions, after two years of virtual technical updates, and of course the two coordinators who ably guided our discussions, Ms. Natalie Morris-Sharma from Singapore on the Oceans and the Law of the Sea Resolution and Mr. Andreas Kravik from Norway on the Sustainable Fisheries Resolution. Our thanks go as well to the president of the BBNJ Intergovernmental Conference, Ambassador Rena Lee of Singapore, and her facilitators and staff; the Director of DOALOS, Mr. Vladimir Jares and his capable staff.
I thank you.