OSPAR? Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. A cosy little club of countries which once had lofty aims of cleaning up the North Atlantic, but now seems destined to preside over the destruction of one of the world’s most iconic regions: the Arctic.
The word “OSPAR” comes from combining bits of the words “Oslo” and “Paris”, the places where agreements making up the OSPAR Convention were signed. It’s a word linked with Greenpeace for many, many years thanks to some extraordinary campaigning in the 1990s, resulting in the banning of the dumping of old, contaminated oil rigs in the North Sea. A massive victory for civil society!
The treaty bearing this name is a powerful tool: it is the treaty for the protection of the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic all the way from the southern tip of Spain to the North Pole. In addition, it is the ONLY international convention for the protection of the environment that covers part of the Arctic. This means that OSPAR ‘Contracting Parties’ – 16 countries (Arctic and non-Arctic states) and the European Union – hold the key to legal protection of part of the Arctic.
At the last OSPAR Commision meeting (held last summer in Portugal) the Portuguese delegation intervened, saying that the future of the Arctic should be decided globally because that future will affect to all of us. This sort of intervention is pretty extraordinary in the context of the bureaucratic language of treaty meetings. And it happened because Greenpeace, following the demands of 6 million people calling for an Arctic Sanctuary, approached OSPAR to ask them to take their responsibilities in the Arctic seriously. The OSPAR Convention imposes significant obligations on its signatories, but the Contracting Parties have so far failed to protect the Arctic waters covered by this convention: they have done nothing.
Tomorrow, the members of the OSPAR Convention will meet again. This time they will meet in London. During these two days the discussion about the Arctic (only one small item on the agenda) will revolve around a vague 23 page document drafted with the singular intention of wasting time and doing nothing to protect this region covering almost 40% of the entire OSPAR area. Yes, that is the reality. The ‘Discussion Document on OSPAR Region 1 (Arctic Waters)’ drafted by some of the member states was supposed to define an ‘action plan’ to meet their contractual responsibilities. Instead it fails even to identify the issues affecting this extraordinary region. Hello countries, where have you been for the last decade?
One country, Iceland, has even gone so far as to challenge the right of OSPAR to decide anything about the Arctic. Instead of working constructively inside the treaty meetings it has chosen to refuse to participate in further discussions, and investigate legal avenues to stop all work by OSPAR in the Arctic.
While the Arctic is melting, while the oil and gas companies are playing conqueror, while Arctic biodiversity is suffering the existential impacts of climate change, the OSPAR club will discuss if it is necessary to undertake yet another assessment about the dramatic situation in the Arctic, and then go through some undefined process to make sure they are not duplicating any work already done by another organization. After that they will decide if there is any actual work they need to do. Endless discussions. Delays.
Putting aside the feeling of disgust at the current debacle, it’s good to remember that OSPAR can be a powerful tool: the members of the OSPAR Commission have in their hands the key to achieve real and lasting protection of the Arctic, including the first slice of an Arctic Sanctuary. There is no longer time for excuses and delays. Nations have the opportunity to act as they committed when they signed and ratified the OSPAR Convention. In London this week they will have to discuss how seriously, and how rapidly, they want to work in order to protect the OSPAR’s Arctic waters, or face those who demand its protection.
OSPAR Member States know that more than 6 million people are calling for the protection of the Arctic. They can not keep doing nothing, especially within a treaty based on the precautionary principle! Greenpeace has worked constructively within the confines of observer status
From now on the deliberations of 16 countries and the European Union on the Arctic won’t remain hidden. Greenpeace is watching and we will point out who are the goodies and the baddies of this story: how Denmark and Iceland are blocking implementation, how Norway is weakening the process, and how others are hiding behind these three countries. The story will be known internationally, the spotlight pointed northwards. And Greenpeace will tell the story.
Dr. Neil Hamilton is the Senior Political Advisor for the Arctic campaign at Greenpeace Norway.
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