In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development ("the Earth Summit") adopted Agenda 21 - an international programme of action for global sustainable development for the 21st century. Chapter 17 of Agenda 21 specifically deals with the protection of the oceans and the protection and rational use and development of their living resources. To present a coordinated and comprehensive view of UN agency activities in support of Chapter 17, the UN agencies dealing with oceans and coastal issues formed the Sub-committee on Oceans and Coastal Areas of the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC SOCA) in 1993.

Following a review of coordination mechanisms of the ACC in November 2001, the ACC concluded that all existing subsidiary bodies should cease to exist by the end of 2001 and that future inter-agency support requirements would best be handled through ad hoc, time-bound, task-oriented arrangements using a lead agency approach. Subsequent consultations between the UN Programs and Agencies participating in the coordination of oceans and coasts indicated strong interest in developing a new inter-agency coordinating mechanism consistent with the new arrangements being developed in the United Nations system.

In September 2003, the United Nations High-Level Committee on Programmes approved the creation of an Oceans and Coastal Areas Network (subsequently named "UN-Oceans") to build on SOCA, covering a wide range of issues and composed of the relevant programmes, entities and specialized agencies of the UN system and the secretariats of the relevant international conventions, including the International Seabed Authority and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Following recommendations from the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea and taking into account the decisions of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in this regard, the 57th Session of the General Assembly invited the Secretary-General to establish an effective, transparent and regular inter-agency coordination mechanism on oceans and coastal issues within the United Nations system. UN-Oceans has met on an annual basis since 2005.

In 2011, the General Assembly, in paragraph 239 of resolution 66/231 on oceans and the law of the sea, invited the United Nations Joint Inspection Unit to review UN-Oceans and to submit a report thereon to the General Assembly for its consideration, and requested UN-Oceans to submit to the Assembly draft terms of reference for its work, to be considered by the Assembly at its sixty-seventh session with a view to reviewing the mandate of UN-Oceans and enhancing transparency and reporting of its activities to Member States. The Joint Inspection Unit undertook a review of UN-Oceans in 2012 and transmitted its report to the General Assembly on 28 September 2012. At its sixty-seventh session, the General Assembly, in paragraph 267 of resolution 67/78 on oceans and the law of the sea, noted the review of UN-Oceans by the Joint Inspection Unit, decided that the draft terms of reference for its work submitted by UN-Oceans would be considered by the Assembly at its sixty-eighth session with a view to reviewing the mandate of UN-Oceans and approving the terms of reference, taking into account the need to strengthen the central role of the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea and the need to enhance transparency and reporting of the activities of UN-Oceans to Member States, and requested UN-Oceans to draft revised draft terms of reference for its work for consideration and approval by the Assembly at its sixty-eighth session.

In 2013, the General Assembly, in paragraph 279 of resolution 68/70, recognized the work undertaken so far by UN-Oceans, approved the revised terms of reference for the work of UN-Oceans, with a revised mandate, as annexed to the resolution, and decided to review these terms of reference at its seventy-second session in light of the work of UN-Oceans.
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UN-Oceans in India