Why Bangladesh should win the arbitration
IT is clear from the offshore acreage map of Bangladesh that the location of her deep-sea blocks 10 and 11 cannot be further away from her maritime boundary with Myanmar. Yet, Myanmar lodged a protest when Bangladesh initiated gas exploration activity in these blocks. India also protested. This has left Bangladesh with little option other than going for arbitration in the international court.
Bangladesh has indeed gone for arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for the resolution of the dispute. Bangladesh alleges that both the neighbours have extended their respective maritime boundaries into her offshore areas, depriving her legitimate right to the sea.
However, Bangladesh has been a little late in doing so because it has been some years now that Myanmar and India started exploration works inside Bangladesh sea. They faced no problems because of the "no response" attitude of Bangladesh until recently.
Now that Bangladesh faces opposition to its plans of exploring in her offshore blocks, she understands that it is not only her economic future but also her sovereignty that are being challenged. As for the present, the people of Bangladesh are asking, can we win the case?
Bangladesh marked 10 shallow and 20 deep-sea blocks in her offshore area while inviting IOCs to bid for acreage for oil and gas exploration in 2008. The deep-sea blocks are numbered from 9 to 28 (see acreage map). Myanmar declared 10 deep-sea blocks (AD1 to AD10) off her Arakan coast. It can be seen in the map that Myanmar blocks AD7, AD8, AD9 and AD10 enter Bangladesh deep-sea area and overlap with Bangladesh blocks 13, 17, 18, 22, 23, 27 and 28.
Bangladesh had to interrupt a contingent of gas exploration workers and facilities of Daewoo company working for Myanmar inside Bangladesh deep sea block 13 in November 2008. Bangladesh had to show up its naval force to effectively stop the intruders exploring there and leave the place. Myanmar, however, said that the team put the work program on hold temporarily.
The reason why Myanmar and India are showing excessive interest in the offshore area is the recent big discoveries of gas in the Bay of Bengal on either side of the Bay, and the optimism of further prospects according to studies by geoscientist (Daily Star, October 16, Point-counter point).
Under this circumstance, how India and Myanmar could draw their respective maritime boundaries with Bangladesh and claim offshore areas belonging to Bangladesh (see map) are very surprising. If Bangladesh does not contest the claim, a large portion of her offshore area will be lost.
According to the United Nation Convention of Law of Sea (UNCLOS), 1982, "a coastal country is entitled to claim 200 nautical miles of the sea as her Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)." This is referred to as the Equidistance Principle.
However, if the coast of one country is concave or recessive with respect to the other, the application of the equidistance method would draw the line of boundary inwards in the direction of concavity, thus disproportionately reducing legitimate sea area of one country at the expense of other.
This is exactly what happens to Bangladesh when neighbouring countries use equidistance principle for maritime boundary limitation. In such a case, therefore, according to UNCLOS (Article 74), "equidistance principle is not applicable and the boundary lines in question are to be drawn by agreement between the parties on the basis of international law in order to achieve equitable solution [...] taking into account the configuration of the coast, the length of the coast and other relevant factors." This is referred to as Equitable Principle. Both India and Myanmar, signatories of the UNCLOS, are aware of the above principle and are legally bound to obey.
But both India and Myanmar used equidistance principle while drawing their maritime boundaries with Bangladesh. If Bangladesh accepts these boundaries, she will lose significant offshore areas from her share and will be deprived of her legitimate right. The above move by India and Myanmar actually violates the UNCLOS.
An analogous dispute was registered in 1967, with one country, Germany, in the middle (like Bangladesh in the present context), and two countries, Netherlands and Denmark on either sides (like India and Myanmar in the present context), contesting for their share of the North Sea.
All the three countries are bordered by the petroliferous North Sea, and planned to exploit their oil and gas resources. Germany disagreed on the maritime boundaries drawn by Denmark and Netherlands because they were drawn on the principle of equidistance. Germany reckoned that such a criterion would very considerably reduce what she considered to be her fair share of the sea.
Failing to negotiate among themselves, they placed the matter in the international court for settlement. The court declared its verdict on February 20, 1969, which stated: "The application of the method of delimitation based on equidistance principle was not obligatory between the parties [...] Delimitation is to be effected by agreement in accordance with equitable principles, taking into account all the relevant circumstances [...] including general configuration of the coast of the parties, physical and geological structure..."
From the above discussion, it appears that Bangladesh has rightly taken the maritime boundary dispute with India and Myanmar to court for international arbitration. The provisions of the UN Law of the Sea (1982) are in favour of Bangladesh's claim. On the other hand, by applying the principle of equidistance to mark maritime boundaries with Bangladesh, both India and Myanmar have knowingly violated the UNCLOS. It is, therefore, expected that Bangladesh has a case to win.
However, it may be noted that in the intriguing arena of international diplomacy, politics and military moves, a justifiable and equitable stand is not always upheld. In the stage of world theater, powerful parties tend to write the last chapter of the play. We expect Bangladesh to go for the case with enough drive so as to overcome any conspiracy that would aim at depriving her of her rightful claim.