Our country signed the new BBNJ treaty during an official ceremony in New York yesterday. The signing is a crucial step towards the swift ratification of the treaty, aimed at enhancing the protection of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction. Belgium is also a candidate to host the treaty's secretariat, with the campaign officially launched yesterday.

The official signing ceremony of the BBNJ treaty took place in New York, in the context of the United Nations General Assembly. Minister of the North Sea Vincent Van Quickenborne signed on behalf of our country. To celebrate the opening for signing, Belgium, in collaboration with Costa Rica, France, and the European Union, organized a BBNJ-Breakfast Event, attended by notable figures such as actresses Jane Fonda and Sigourney Weaver. Many ministers and heads of state present pledged to expedite the 60 ratifications required to activate the treaty. The objective is to achieve this by the UN Ocean Conference in 2025.


Left: Minister of the North Sea Vincent Van Quickenborne signs the BBNJ treaty for Belgium. Right: With actress and environmental activist Jane Fonda at the BBNJ Breakfast Event in New York (© Little Village Films).

Belgium Candidate for UN Secretariat in Brussels

In New York, a campaign was also launched to establish the secretariat of the BBNJ treaty in Brussels. Our country, as a diplomatic hotspot and home to numerous international organizations, is the ideal location for this endeavor. Furthermore, Belgium has been at the forefront of this matter. Currently, 37% of the Belgian North Sea is designated as protected natural areas, and in 2019, Belgium was a founding member of the international Blue Leaders alliance, advocating for the approval of the UN treaty with the goal of protecting 30% of our oceans by 2030. As a Blue Leader, Belgium will continue to play a significant role in establishing the first marine protected area on the high seas.

The BBNJ secretariat will be a separate entity, distinct from the UN headquarters in New York. This is essential to empower the new treaty, as there will inevitably be opposition to designating natural areas on the high seas. An independent secretariat can then assert itself with its own budget. The effectiveness of the treaty will depend on the secretariat's ability to enforce protection of the high seas.

Logo #BBNJBrussels
The logo of the campaign to bring the BBNJ secretariat to Brussels.

The Importance of the Ocean

More than two-thirds of the Earth's surface is covered by the ocean, often referred to as the planet's "blue lungs." It sequesters CO2, produces oxygen, and acts as a buffer against climate change. The ocean absorbs one-third of the CO2 emitted by human activities, helping to mitigate global warming and stabilize the climate. It also hosts a wealth of biodiversity essential to maintaining these functions.

The scientific community has consistently emphasized the crucial role these functions play for our planet. However, the ocean is negatively impacted by pollution, overfishing, and other human activities.

The BBNJ Treaty

While climate change is undeniable, its consequences are not yet inevitable. A significant step toward addressing this was taken in March 2023 with the agreement on the protection and preservation of our ocean. The BBNJ treaty, achieved after 17 years of negotiations at the United Nations, recognizes that only a healthy and protected ocean, where biodiversity thrives and the impact of human activities is limited, can play a vital role in mitigating the effects of climate change. Even beyond national jurisdictions, humanity has an obligation to fully and substantially protect the marine environment. The treaty provides the necessary legal framework for this.

Protected Natural Areas on the High Seas

One of the key achievements of the treaty is the ability to establish protected areas on the high seas, beyond territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. This was previously impossible. Because of that, two-thirds of the ocean remained unprotected. Currently, only 1.2% of the ocean is designated as protected natural areas on the high seas. These areas are subject to strict regulation of human activities, including sustainable shipping, scientific research respecting the environment, sustainable marine tourism, and an end to uncontrolled fishing.

Our country has long advocated for protecting at least 30% of the ocean by 2030, including through the establishment of the international Blue Leaders alliance. Science agrees that this is necessary to have a resilient ocean that impacts climate change. Achieving 30% represents a tipping point to maintain the viability of the remaining 70%.

The treaty also addresses access to marine genetic resources and the fair distribution of benefits arising from them, environmental impact assessments of activities on the high seas, capacity building, and the transfer of marine technology. Like the climate treaty, the agreement will also organize an annual COP (Conference of the Parties).