A Peace Pact with Nature: reflecting on the CBD COP15 and the new BBNJ agreement

By Andrea Longo

What difference can the new Global Biodiversity Framework and the new agreement on ocean biodiversity make for the triple environmental crises and human rights? Former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Prof John Knox, invited the One Ocean Hub, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Secretariat and other experts to share their views on 13 March 2023 at a webinar organised by the American Society of International Law and the European Society of International Law (you can watch the recording here).  

The webinar was titled “A Peace Pact with Nature: CBD COP15 and the future of biodiversity conservation” and is part of the ASIL “Global Engagement Series.” It focused on the Global Biodiversity Framework, adopted during the CBD Conference of the Parties in December 2022 (see our previous blog here)  

Initial reflections on the GBF 

Elaine Geyer-Allely, WWF, underscored that the 2022 Living Planet Index indicates that almost 70 per cent of the monitored wildlife populations have declined in the past 50 years, with freshwater species being hit the hardest and showing an average decline of 83 per cent. Elaine warned against the risk of losing the progress made up to now. 

Worku Yifri, Senior Legal Advisor at the CBD Secretariat, underscored:

  • the commitment to conserve and restore at least 30 per cent of areas and ecosystems, including marine and coastal ones; 
  • the enhanced recognition of indigenous populations’ human rights and knowledge;  
  • the acknowledgment of governments’ role to protect environmental human rights defenders; 
  •  the arguably unprecedented world community’s outlook towards nature, including reference to Mother Nature as driving force to enhance the conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity;  
  • the human-rights based approach to the GBF implementation, including gender equality and public participation in decision-making;  
  • mechanisms for planning, monitoring and reviewing the GBF implementation, as well as a strategy for resource mobilisation.  

Joan Carling, Indigenous Peoples Rights International, reflected on Indigenous peoples’ engagement with the CBD framework. While the GBF seems to enhance the protection of Indigenous peoples’ rights and interests, it admittedly also establishes some limits to their effective participation. She welcomes reference to free prior informed consent when seeking access to Indigenous and local knowledge with a view to informing the decision-making process and the equitable governance and management of biodiversity (Target 21), but cautioned against language subjecting implementation to relevant national legislation, because in many countries Indigenous peoples’ human rights are not sufficiently recognised or guaranteed in national laws. She also argued that the GBF targets are overly dependent on national circumstances, priorities and capabilities, recalling the negative impacts on Indigenous Peoples’ human rights of past and continued “fortress approach” to conservation. 

Hub Director Elisa Morgera highlighted the increased ambition of two newly agreed GBF targets for marine biodiversity conservation and restoration (Targets 2-3), and the significance for ocean governance of the inclusion of explicit human rights language in the GBF on to the protection of Indigenous peoples, gender equality, and environmental human rights defenders. She lamented that more explicit language could also have been included on children’s human rights, considering the development of a new UN General Comment on Children’s Rights and a Healthy Environment, and the inter-dependence of human health and biodiversity. She also noted that the reference to the right to development should in the future be interpreted in the light of a new UN General Comment on economic, social and cultural rights and sustainable development (see Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights).  

In addition, Elisa Morgera brought in the conversation the recently agreed instrument on marine biodiversity of areas Beyond National Jurisdiction Agreement (BBNJ – advanced unedited draft available here), which also addresses the conservation and sustainable use of ocean biodiversity. She argued that: 

  • the Agreement includes explicit reference to Indigenous peoples’ human rights, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, both in the preamble and as an underlying principle, which should influence the interpretation of the whole agreement; 
  • preamble and as an underlying principle on human rights also include reference to “local communities”, which should be interpreted in the light of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and the FAO Small-scale Fisheries Guidelines
  • while States missed the opportunity to incorporate other explicit references to human rights protection in the BBNJ, the Agreement nonetheless does include provisions on public information and consultation at the national and international level (as suggested by the Hub’s policy brief here), food security and general socio-economic objectives, including the protection of cultural values, that should be interpreted in the light of relevant international human rights treaties (see Hub event here), particularly now that the Global Biodiversity Framework emphasises a human rights-based approach and the human right to a healthy environment; 
  • the innovative power for the a BBNJ Conference of the Parties to mandate the conduct of Strategic Environmental Assessments of an area or region to collate and synthesise the best available information, assess current and potential future impacts and identify data gaps and research priorities (as suggested by the Hub’s policy brief on SEAs here), has the potential to fill our current gaps in ocean science for ecologically sensible management both in areas within and beyond national jurisdiction;  
  • the BBNJ Agreement has the potential to provide a new, iterative multilateral forum to periodically review and support learning on fairness and equity in ocean science (through its provisions on benefit-sharing from marine bio-based research and innovation), which could help address the Global North/South equity gaps in deep-sea research and, through that, support more inclusive global efforts towards the conservation and sustainable of the marine ecosystem. 

For a more extensive rapid-assessment blog post on the BBNJ agreement, see here


Looking forward, the panellists reflected on whether the GBF is going to be more successful than previously agreed frameworks and global targets, or even any successful at all.  

Whilst the last decades showed a gradual move towards the sustainability paradigm and the broader tools and processes underlying this concept, transformative change to revert the current rates of global biodiversity loss must occur at all levels, including that of research institutions, which are capable of influencing governments’ policy-making. Elaine Geyer-Allely mentioned that WWF is conducting an internal review of the meaning and scope of “conservation”, traditionally a natural science-based concept that is now progressively opening up so as to include also other research angles and human rights-based approach. Joan Carling emphasised the importance of cooperation at the national and local level for the implementation of the GBF targets, calling for a shift in governments’ perception of Indigenous peoples from “obstacles” to the protection of biodiversity to fully-fledged “actors” in this global quest (for a broader discussion on indigenous peoples’ effective participation, see here.) 

Elisa Morgera underscored that more work is needed to fill the gaps in our marine biodiversity knowledge and to incorporate disaggregated data about vulnerable communities and individual human rights holders that are negatively affected by the loss of biodiversity, including deep-sea ecosystem degradation. To that end, she invited more collaboration with the medical community. She also noted the role of researchers in co-developing questions and approaches with other Indigenous peoples, local communities, women and children, as well as other knowledge holders, with a view to supporting more integrated and inclusive biodiversity governance from the early stage of evidence co-production.