Amidst BBNJ Negotiations: The Philippine Diplomacy


With the increased footprint and growing anthropogenic pressures in the marine areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) that the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) started the negotiations for an international legally binding instrument (ILBI) within the overarching framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in order to manage and conserve marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). Since the official negotiations commenced in 2017 through the UNGA Resolution 72/249, there have been three Intergovernmental Conferences thus far – the first one on 17 September 2018, the second on 25 March-5 April 2019, and the third on 19-30 August 2019. The fourth and last session was supposed to be held last 11 March 2020, but this has been postponed due to the ongoing pandemic. It is in this regard that this postponement can be utilized by the Philippines to leverage itself better in the remaining BBNJ negotiation.

The Philippines has taken the position of adopting a new ILBI within the UNCLOS and not merely endorsing an enhanced administration and implementation of existing tools and instruments for the management of BBNJ. It advocates a rules-based and an integrated approach towards the BBNJ that is hinged on the principles of common heritage of mankind, rights and jurisdiction of adjacent coastal states, special recognition to environmentally vulnerable states, precautionary principles, and transparency. The various statements released by the Philippine Delegation (PhilDel) principally address the loopholes in the present management of BBNJ by stressing environmental justice hinged on fair and equitable access and distribution of benefits among all stakeholders within the ambit of sustainable development.

Philippine maritime diplomacy vis-à-vis BBNJ has highlighted the neo-liberal focus on the common problem-solving for the management of common resources. The International Relations theory of neo-liberalism underscores a system-level approach for cooperative strategies by building institutions that can create and regulate norms, rules and procedures to overcome the anarchic environment of the global order and consequently influence states to align their interests, and thereby attain enhanced collective outcomes and solutions in response to global and regional problems. International institutions serve therefore as policy outputs that represent the consensus of states that try to accentuate their absolute gains more than relative gains.

As an archipelagic country with 7,641 islands, its geographical conditions and boundaries are salient factors in the Philippines’ diplomatic activities. As a major fishing country, the Philippines is one of the top fish-producing countries in the world, contributing to the employment of 1.5 million Filipinos nationwide in 2010. The average annual contribution of the fishing sector in the country’s economy has been increasing through the years, and is currently valued at 3.6 percent. Given this economic salience of the fishing sector in the Philippines, the country has high stakes and exhibits huge interest in coming up with an ILBI on BBNJ that would be instrumental in evading the tragedy of the commons and overcoming the unequal access to and utilization of marine genetic resources. Being a low-middle income country that is tantamount to having a weak power within the international order, the Philippines has tried to position itself advantageously in the BBNJ negotiations by maximizing the neo-liberal approach. It has entered into coalition-building with other developing states that encounter similar struggles in the negotiations in order to pool a greater bargaining capacity. In spite of the limits of multilateralism, a smallpower like the Philippines may have more elbow room in the consensus-based multilateral set-up in BBNJ instead of a bilateral arrangement for inter-state relations.

As any global environmental agenda is embroiled with North-South politics, the Philippines has tried to leverage itself by entering into coalition with the Group of 77 (G-77) countries throughout the BBNJ negotiations. The G-77 has emerged as the largest coalition of the so-called developing countries from the South within the United Nations, and it has proven itself to be instrumental in articulating these countries’ collective identity and economic interests and in synergizing their negotiating capacity. From the Philippine perspective, converging with the G-77 is thus advantageous for a developing country like itself which aspires economic growth and seeks to correct the information asymmetry and imbalance of representation in the international system specially with regard to the thorny issues in BBNJ like distribution of biodiversity and access to capacity building and technology transfer (CB & TT). However, in spite of the promises of G-77, the group has been continuously challenged and being re-defined as bifurcations in interests emerge. For instance, the Philippines supports the proposal of referring to “environmentally” relevant UNCLOS clauses as part of the general provisions of the Treaty, but this was rejected by China. These internal interests diverge mainly due to the faster growth of other larger developing countries within G-77, specifically the BASIC (Brazil, China, India and South Africa) group.

Amidst the BBNJ negotiations and a changing G-77 collective identity, the Philippines can maximize its expanded network for international collaboration and cooperation, and explore other pathways of its diplomacy. As G-77 interests branch off internally, the PhilDel can utilize a greater degree of multi-level diplomacy by building alliances with countries forming part of other regional groups, such as the Coral Triangle Initiative and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, that are also members of the G-77. By highlighting their common economic, security and political interests, the Philippines can bring out these common dependencies that can solidify their position. As neo-liberalism also encompasses the role of non-state entities in international cooperation, the Philippines can bolster its non-state public diplomacy by forging greater collaboration with non-state actors like the environmental NGOs and the private sector, laying stress on ideational and material interests common with state preferences. Finally, the Philippines can also bolster its science diplomacy. As pertinent technology attributable to CB & TT is scattered among states, research centers, higher education institutions, business sector, and other non-state actors, the country can utilize network model that will expand the flows of CB & TT not only from North to South but also explore South-South passage, harnessing the variegated strengths of the Southern countries and endorsing multi-directional flows of impact.

Maria Pilar Lorenzo
Maria Pilar Lorenzo
Maria Pilar Lorenzo is an independent researcher and consultant currently based in Belgium. She obtained her Advanced Master in Cultures and Development Studies from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, and Master of Public Administration from the University of the Philippines. She is a Fellow of the Regional Academy on United Nations, an Affiliate of the Philippine Society for Public Administration and of the Asian Society for Public Administration. In May 2020, she has been selected and featured by the YSEALI Women’s Leadership Academy as one of the leading women in Southeast Asia.


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