MP Dennis Tan

Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong asked 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.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs (Dr Vivian Balakrishnan): Mr Speaker, I thank Mr Tan for that question and I beg indulgence of the House to give a somewhat detailed answer.

The BBNJ Treaty is an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for the conservation and 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 zone and continental shelf of countries, and therefore, it 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.

 The BBNJ Treaty is thus a historic achievement and a critical boost for 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 lands, inland waters, coastal areas and oceans by 2030.

 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 overseeing individual issues such as fisheries management and maritime shipping. It will fill some of these regulatory gaps, it will promote coordination across the different regional and sectoral bodies and provide greater clarity on what is required for the assessment of environmental impacts for activities in these areas.

 Second, the Treaty seeks to address some of the inequalities among states in their ability to manage and use the resources of the 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 and it will boost capacity-building efforts for developing countries to better conserve and to sustainably use their marine biodiversity and to implement this Treaty.

 We are 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 and 2023; and that this successfully led to the conclusion of the Treaty negotiations. Rena’s able and tireless leadership during this long and arduous process brought countries together towards achieving a consensus outcome and reaffirmed Singapore’s position as a trusted interlocutor and bridge-builder as well as underlying 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 that a rules-based international order is needed more than ever before to resolve global issues.

 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 (NRF) will find it easier to obtain access to information and to samples of the marine organisms for their research.

 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 contribute to combatting climate change and protecting our own environment and oceans by living sustainably and practising zero-waste lifestyles.

 To conclude, the oceans, whether they lie within exclusive economic zones or in the high seas beyond national jurisdiction, are all inter-connected. 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 the ocean-climate nexus. We are therefore privileged and honoured to have been able to play a part in ensuring the conservation and sustainable use of our oceans through the BBNJ Treaty negotiations. We will certainly continue to support this crucial endeavour.

Mr Speaker: Mr Dennis Tan.

Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong (Hougang): 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 and 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. As we know in international law, the initial agreement of the Treaty is just a first step. It is important that all countries will also ratify and introduce in their local laws in a short as possible a time, so that we can all start reaping the benefits of the Treaty. So, 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.

The second supplementary question, how would 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?

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan: 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. It will require at the domestic level, policies and 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, in fact, 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 sea bed, the natural resources in a sense the natural heritage of all mankind, is important and worthy of protection.

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 it 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. What will these challenges be? On a couple of fronts. 

Number one, the unequal capacities of countries already causes 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. 

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.

Third, training capacity building, which will also require sharing between countries. And 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 both officials, students, scientists across the board that we can, we will continue to to do so.

But I would also say, we do need transparency and which actually brings me to the second point – how do you ensure compliance? Because these are the 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 that I am grateful for your interest in this area and for your support and I hope this is the same situation in parliaments all over the world.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs
21 March 2023


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