India has decided to sign and ratify the High Seas Treaty, a global agreement for conservation and protection of biodiversity in the oceans, that is often compared to the 2015 Paris Agreement in its reach and impact.

The High Seas Treaty, also known as the agreement on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdictions (BBNJ), was negotiated in March last year. “India remains committed and proactive to the global cause of environmental conservation and sustainable development. We will be signing (the BBNJ Agreement) and are propitious of subsequently ratifying it through the necessary legislative processes,” Science and Technology Minister Jitendra Singh said on Monday following the endorsement of the treaty by the Cabinet on July 2.

“The government is aligned to scientific progress, strengthening international collaboration, and promoting governance, transparency, accountability and the rule of law,” Singh said. The High Seas, the oceans outside the national boundaries of countries, are international commons, open for use by all. The resources found in these areas, which constitute about 64% of the ocean surface, are open for extraction by anyone. The exact activities, and the manner in which they can be carried out, are governed by international and regional laws. Most notable and wide-ranging of the laws is the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, or UNCLOS, which defines the rights and duties of the country, and lays down the general principles of acceptable conduct in the oceans.

The High Seas Treaty, once it is ratified by the requisite number of countries and becomes international law, would operate under the UNCLOS framework, and become one of its implementing instruments. There are already two similar agreements under UNCLOS, one that regulates the extraction of mineral resources from ocean beds, and the other about conservation of migratory fish stocks.
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Among other things, the High Seas Treaty would define and demarcate marine protected areas in biodiversity-rich zones of the oceans that are under stress. Similar to what happens in national parks or protected wildlife areas, certain kinds of human activities in these marine protected areas, like deep sea mining, would be prohibited or regulated.

The treaty also seeks to ensure that any benefits accruing from ocean life forms, like drug development, is considered a global common, is free of intellectual property rights and equitably shared with everyone. Besides, commercial activities in the open oceans that are likely to result in causing large-scale pollution would now require an environmental impact assessment. The treaty would become international law 120 days after at least 60 countries submit their formal ratification documents. As of now, 91 countries have signed the treaty, but only eight of them have ratified and made the submission.