Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Oral Replies to Parliamentary and Supplementary Questions on the Treaty on Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, 21 March 2023

21 March 2023

MDennis Tan Lip Fong: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs in respect of the recently concluded landmark Treaty on Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (a) what is the Government’s assessment of the outcome of the negotiations leading to the agreed terms of the Treaty; (b) what is the Government’s assessment of the benefits of the Treaty for Singapore; and (c) how can Singapore and Singaporeans contribute to further the objectives of the Treaty.
1       Mr Speaker, I thank Mr Tan for that question, and I beg the indulgence from the House to give a somewhat detailed answer.
2 The ‘BBNJ Treaty’ is an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and the sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. There has been significant concern for many years about the degradation of the marine environment and the depletion of resources in the high seas and the deep seabed. This refers to the waters and the seabed beyond the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones and the continental shelves of countries, and therefore is beyond the jurisdiction of any particular country. There is an urgent need for collective action to address the urgent threats confronting our oceans, including the issues of climate change and biodiversity loss.
3 The BBNJ Treaty is thus a historic achievement and a critical boost for our global efforts to protect the marine environment. The Treaty covers nearly two-thirds of the ocean. It is an important step towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 14 – to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development – as well as the global target to protect 30% of the world’s land, inland waters, coastal areas and oceans by 2030.
4 First, the Treaty enables a more holistic regulation of the marine environment in areas beyond national jurisdiction. This has hitherto been fragmented across different regional and sectoral organisations that oversee individual issues such as fisheries management and maritime shipping. It will fill some of these regulatory gaps, promote coordination across different regional and sectoral bodies, and provide greater clarity on what is required for the assessment of environmental impacts for activities in these areas.
5 Second, the Treaty seeks to address some of the inequalities amongst states in their ability to manage and to use the resources of areas beyond national jurisdiction. It provides for greater and more equitable sharing of the benefits arising from marine scientific research in these areas for all countries. It will boost capacity-building efforts for developing countries to better conserve and sustainably use the marine biodiversity, and to implement this Treaty.
6 We are very proud that a Singaporean, the Ambassador for Oceans and Law of the Sea Issues, Ms. Rena Lee, presided over the five Intergovernmental Conference sessions, which were held between 2018 to 2023, and that this successfully led to the conclusion of the Treaty negotiations. Rena’s able and tireless leadership towards this long and arduous process brought countries together towards achieving a consensus outcome and reaffirms Singapore’s position on the global stage as a trusted interlocutor and a bridge-builder, as well as underlines our leading role in developing the international law of the sea. The successful conclusion of the negotiations is also a strong affirmation that multilateralism remains effective and relevant, and a rules-based international order is needed more than ever before to resolve global issues.
7 These outcomes are relevant and beneficial to Singapore. By codifying scientific best practices across jurisdictions and giving effect to the principle of open science, the BBNJ Treaty will augment our Institutes of Higher Learning, as well as maritime companies’ access to deep sea samples, thereby creating new opportunities for our R&D sector. Through the Treaty, our scientists working with repositories such as the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in NUS, and agencies like A*STAR as well as the National Research Foundation, will find it easier to obtain access to information and samples of marine organisms for their research.
8 Singapore can also contribute to the objectives of the Treaty in a variety of ways. In the immediate term, we can work with other countries and regional and international organisations towards the early ratification and the effective implementation of the Treaty. In the longer term, we can support capacity-building efforts for developing countries by sharing our experience and expertise through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Singapore Cooperation Programme. Singaporeans can also contribute to combatting climate change and protecting our own environment and oceans by living sustainably and by practicing zero-waste lifestyles.
9 To conclude, the oceans, whether they lie within exclusive economic zones, or in the high seas beyond national jurisdiction, are all interconnected. The waters and the marine biodiversity in them move freely across borders. This means that whatever happens in the areas beyond national jurisdiction can and will have an impact on us in Singapore – be it in terms of biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, or in the ocean-climate nexus. We are therefore privileged and honoured to have been able to play a part in ensuring the conservation and the sustainable use of our oceans through the BBNJ Treaty negotiations and we will certainly continue to support this crucial endeavour.
Question 1
Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong: I thank the Foreign Minister for his detailed reply. May I join the Foreign Minister in also commending Ms Rena Lee for her leadership in her capacity as President of the UN Conference for the BBNJ and her excellent work in facilitating the agreement of many nations for the text for the landmark treaty on the BBNJ, which I understand is an effort that has taken so many years. I have two supplementary questions. The first is this. The signing of the Treaty is only the beginning, the devil is in the details, and there are a number of details to agree to in the coming months, if not longer, and as we know in international law, the initial agreement to the Treaty is just the first step, it is important that all countries will also ratify and introduce in their local laws in as short as possible a time so that we can all start reaping the benefits of the Treaty. Will the Minister share with the House what he sees as some of the challenges in getting as many countries to sign up and ratify so that the Treaty can be properly enforced sooner rather than later? This is especially given the competitive nature of the world fisheries and mining industries. Thank you.
Question 2
Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong: Second supplementary question –how will the government encourage or even ensure that Singaporean businesses will only source from sustainable fisheries and undersea mining, in compliance with the requirement of this convention? Thank you.
1 Thank you. Mr Tan is absolutely right. The challenge now, having concluded the negotiations on the text, is to get countries to ratify, and more importantly, to actually implement the Treaty. It will require at the domestic level, policies, legislation and programmes to do so. I will not underestimate the effort needed to persuade everyone to come on board. That is why I have dealt with this at some length, because we need not just within Singapore but across the world, for everyone to understand why the oceans and the marine biodiversity in the high seas and on the deep seabed, the natural resources, in a sense the natural heritage of all mankind, are important and worthy of protection.
2 To be honest with you, this requires political support. I am glad that at least in the case of Singapore, I think in this House, I can say that there is unanimous support for the protection of the environment, for dealing with climate change, for conserving marine biodiversity, and equally important, a fair and equitable approach to how we extract resources sustainably in areas both within our own jurisdiction as well as areas outside. The point is, I am very grateful for your support, but I am also saying that there will be challenges internationally.
3 What will these challenges be? On a couple of fronts. Number one, the unequal capacities of countries already cause a challenge. Because there will be some countries who have the technology and therefore have a head start to exploit and gain even sometimes an unfair advantage over others. This is one reason why this Treaty is so important – because it sets common rules for everyone.
4 Second, this Treaty also ensures that there is a more equitable distribution of the benefits that derive from the extraction and the exploitation of this natural heritage of all of us.
5 Third, training and capacity-building, which will also require sharing between countries. In the case of Singapore, one of the most important programmes that we run on the international front is capacity-building. In the sense of uplifting as many officials, students, and scientists across the board as we can, we will continue to do so.
6 I would also say, we do need transparency, which actually brings me to your second point – how do you ensure compliance. Because these are in areas which are beyond jurisdiction. I will not trivialise how difficult it will be to hold people to account. But I believe that if there is broad-based public support in all countries, and we have a system with sufficient transparency so you know which companies or which institutions, what they are doing, where, and the impact of their activities, I think that transparency will help ensure compliance. So again, I just want to say I am grateful for your interest in this area, and for your support.  I hope this is the same situation in parliaments all over the world.
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