Remarks at the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly and the 47th Plenary Meeting on Agenda Item 78: Oceans and Law of the Sea

Tom Carnahan
Public Delegate
New York, New York
December 7, 2021


Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates,

The United States is pleased to co-sponsor the General Assembly resolution on oceans and the law of the sea.

The United States underscores the central importance of international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention.  All maritime claims must be in accordance with international law as reflected in the provisions of the Convention.

Faced with attempts to impede the lawful exercise of navigational rights and freedoms under international law, it is more important than ever that we remain steadfast in our resolve to uphold these rights and freedoms.

The assertion of unlawful and sweeping maritime claims – including through ongoing intimidation and coercion against long-standing oil and gas development and fishing practices by others – threatens the rules-based international order.  States are entitled to develop and manage the natural resources subject to their sovereign rights without interference.

Our position is simple: the rights and interests of all nations – regardless of size, political power, and military capability – must be respected.

As Secretary of State Blinken stated at an August meeting of the UN Security Council, we have seen dangerous encounters between vessels at sea and provocative actions to advance unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea. The United States has made clear its concerns regarding actions that intimidate other states from lawfully accessing their maritime resources. The United States, along with other countries including South China Sea claimants, have protested such aggressive behavior and unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea.

As Secretary Blinken noted, five years ago an arbitral tribunal constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention delivered a unanimous and legally binding decision to the parties before it firmly rejecting unlawful, expansive South China Sea maritime claims as being inconsistent with international law.

The United States has consistently called for all countries to conform their maritime claims to the international law of the sea as reflected in the 1982 Convention. This is in keeping with the peaceful resolution of disputes and the sovereign equality of member-states, which are core principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter. Efforts to resolve maritime disputes through threat or use of force flout these principles.

It is the business and, even more, the responsibility of every Member State to defend the rules that we have all agreed to follow and peacefully resolve maritime disputes. Conflict in the South China Sea or in any ocean would have serious global consequences for security and for commerce. Furthermore, when a state faces no consequences for ignoring these rules, it fuels greater impunity and instability everywhere.

In this regard, we call on all States to resolve their territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and free from coercion, as well as fashion their maritime claims and conduct their activities in the maritime domain in accordance with international law as reflected in the Convention; to respect the freedoms of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea that all users of the maritime domain enjoy; and to settle disputes peacefully in accordance with international law.  We call on all states to ensure effective implementation of international law applicable to combating piracy, and to unite in the deterrence, prevention, and prosecution of transnational criminal organizations and those engaging in transnational crime at sea.

The United States values the platform that the General Assembly provides to elevate important ocean issues. The annual oceans and the law of the sea resolution serves as an opportunity for the global community to identify key ocean issues and develop constructive ways to address them.

So many of the issues we tackle together through the oceans and the law of the sea resolution are interconnected, and perhaps no issue is more cross-cutting than climate change. As President Biden has said, climate change is the existential threat of our time.

Greenhouse gas emissions are having devastating effects on our ocean, with a cascade of devastating effect on communities and livelihoods around the world. We must apply every lever available, including the wealth of ocean-based solutions at our disposal, to bend down the emissions curve and to improve our resilience. For example, we must dramatically reduce emissions from the international shipping sector.  We must work to scale up offshore renewable energy.  And we must protect and restore coastal ecosystems that store carbon and protect our coastlines from climate impacts.

The United States is proud of the outcomes we achieved together with our partners at COP26 in Glasgow. COP26 was successful in creating a “home” for ocean issues under the UNFCCC, establishing a yearly dialogue for the Parties to advance ocean-based climate solutions. In addition, the United States was pleased to co-launch the Declaration on Zero Emission Shipping by 2050 and to be signatory to the Clydebank Declaration to promote the establishment of green shipping corridors.

The United States was also pleased to announce at COP26 that we will be joining the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy.  The Ocean Panel understands better than anyone what ocean-based solutions can bring to the table when it comes to keeping the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees within reach, and we are looking forward to working with our partners on the Ocean Panel and beyond to protect our ocean, our climate, our people, and our planet.  As a member of the Panel, the United States will be developing a Sustainable Ocean Plan to sustainably manage our ocean area under national jurisdiction.

One of the potential climate impacts that we should collectively work to confront is sea-level rise, which can pose substantial threats to coastal communities and island nations around the world. We will work together with others to address the climate crisis, including the threat of sea-level rise. This includes exploring ways to promote our common goal of appropriately protecting maritime zones from challenge and doing so in a manner that we can all support as consistent with international law.

The United States continues to support efforts by states to delineate and publish their baselines and the limits of their maritime zones in accordance with international law as reflected in the Convention. Such a practice provides useful context and clarifies the maritime claims of states, including in relation to future sea-level rise, and we welcome further discussions on steps that can be taken to protect states’ interests, in accordance with international law, in the context of sea-level rise.

Another important global issue the oceans and the law of the sea resolution addresses is ocean plastic pollution. More than 8 million tons of plastic pollution enter the ocean every year, an amount that is expected to increase unless immediate action is taken to reverse this global trend. Plastic pollution affects environmental and food security, maritime transportation, tourism, economic stability, resource management, and potentially human health. Plastic production, use, and disposal account for roughly 4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which are projected to continue to grow in the future absent action. We must make progress on this issue and increase our efforts as soon as possible.

The United States is committed to global action to combat ocean plastic pollution, including through support for launching negotiations on a global legal instrument that is innovative and accounts for differing national circumstances. We must also ensure that a global legal instrument to combat plastic pollution helps countries most in need with the financial resources to implement the agreement. We are fortunate to have strong interest from a diverse set of stakeholders because combatting plastic pollution will require collaborative efforts from all of us.

The United States also recognizes the efforts underway to make 2022 a “super year” for the ocean. We look most immediately to the next Our Ocean conference, which the United States is extremely grateful to be cohosting with President Whipps of Palau in Koror (kohr-or) on February 16 and 17 of 2022.

The Our Ocean conferences – six to date – have proven to be important catalysts for significant international action to protect the ocean and its resources, resulting in over $91 billion dollars worth of new commitments.

The 2022 conference, entitled Our Ocean, Our People, Our Prosperity, will build on the momentum of previous conferences to mobilize ambitious new announcements to protect our ocean, people, and planet.  We call on the international community to ramp up its action with significant and compelling new commitments on the six thematic areas of the conference, which include climate change, sustainable fisheries, sustainable blue economies, marine protected

areas, maritime security, and marine pollution.  We look forward to a successful conference in Palau in 2022 and the 2023 conference in Panama.

The United States also looks forward to working with delegations on another critical ongoing process here at the UN – the negotiation of the new international legally binding instrument under the Law of the Sea Convention on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction – the so-called BBNJ agreement.

The United States understands the critical importance of high seas marine biodiversity, and we believe the new BBNJ agreement will provide an unprecedented opportunity to coordinate the conservation and sustainable use of high seas biodiversity across management regimes, including to establish high seas marine protected areas. The BBNJ agreement will result in meaningful, science-based conservation and sustainable use of BBNJ while protecting high seas freedoms and promoting marine scientific research.

We thank and commend the BBNJ Intergovernmental Conference President Ms. Rena Lee of Singapore for her continued leadership in helping us keep momentum going during the intersessional period, and we appreciate the constructive cooperation of BBNJ delegations, especially in light of pandemic challenges.  The United States is committed to playing a leadership role in these vital negotiations, and we look forward to the next negotiating session.

The United States is also pleased to co-sponsor the resolution on sustainable fisheries. As with the resolution on oceans and the law of the sea, limitations on our ability to meet and negotiate led to an agreement to only provide technical updates to the sustainable fisheries resolution.

We appreciate the constructive cooperation of delegations, under the patient leadership of the Coordinator, to develop a pragmatic approach to rescheduling meetings related to sustainable fisheries disrupted by the pandemic. The United States looks forward to the 15th round of informal consultations of States Parties to the UN Fish Stocks Agreement in the first half of 2022, the bottom fishing review also in 2022, and the 16th round of informal consultation of States Parties to the UN Fish Stocks Agreement and resumed Review Conference in 2023.

We encourage States and relevant organizations to consider providing updates that could inform the upcoming workshop on the implementation of measures to address the impacts of bottom fishing on vulnerable marine ecosystems and the long-term sustainability of deep-sea fish stocks.

While we did not have an opportunity to discuss new substantive issues in the sustainable fisheries resolution, the resolution does acknowledge our collective accomplishments regarding the entry into force of the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean, as well as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on Fisheries 2021 Declaration for Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture. Together with these successes, we also recognized new challenges in fisheries management.

Fishing activities continue around the world – contributing to livelihoods and food security during this challenging time, even as COVID-19 continues to create difficulties with respect to monitoring of some fisheries. The international community has also focused with new urgency on specific examples of inadequately controlled fishing activities, including illegal, unreported,

and unregulated fishing, which affect everything from the health of ecosystems and coastal communities to the working conditions of observers and crew to the economic development and prosperity of individual Member States.

We will continue to call for flag states to take responsibility for these activities and adopt more robust management measures where needed in regional fisheries management organizations.

With regard to both the oceans and fisheries resolutions, we refer you to our General Statement delivered on November 18, 2021, to the 76th General Assembly Second Committee session, which addresses our concerns regarding the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, and technology transfer, and underscores the independence of the World Trade Organization.

We would like to thank the coordinators of the informal consultations on both resolutions – Ms. Natalie Morris-Sharma of Singapore and Mr. Andreas Kravik of Norway – for their outstanding coordination of the resolutions through modalities of virtual work resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. We also would like to thank the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea for its expertise and hard work throughout the virtual consultations on both resolutions.

Finally, we express our appreciation for delegations’ flexibility and cooperation in embracing the virtual formats taken for our consultations on both resolutions. It is our hope that this spirit of flexibility and cooperation will characterize our efforts to address the numerous and complex issues that lie ahead for the ocean and for fisheries.

Thank you.