Bay is ours
Bangladesh yesterday won a landmark verdict at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which sustained its claim to 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic and territorial rights in the Bay of Bengal rejecting the claims of Myanmar.
The verdict of the court went absolutely in Bangladesh's favour and even beyond, as it gave more than what Bangladesh had asked for. The judgment is final and cannot be appealed against.
The verdict of the tribunal gave Bangladesh a substantial share of the outer continental shelf beyond 200 miles, which would open ways for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Bay.
The tribunal also awarded Bangladesh a full 12-mile territorial sea around St Martin's Island, overruling Myanmar's argument that the island be cut in half and shared.
“We have got everything, even more than what we wanted. We are happy, we are absolutely delighted,” cheerful Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told The Daily Star over the phone from Hamburg, Germany.
"This is a great day for Bangladesh. All our strategic objectives were achieved," she said, adding that Bangladesh could now proceed with its oil and gas exploration in the area. “In our claims, we wanted around 1 lakh square miles but the tribunal in its verdict gave us 1.11 lakh square miles,” she said.
Yesterday's 151-page judgment was the first by any court or tribunal to delimit the maritime area beyond 200 miles, known as the “outer continental shelf”, and is certain to establish an important precedent.
“Bangladesh's full access to the high seas out to 200 miles and beyond is now recognised and guaranteed with our undisputed rights to the fish in our waters and the natural resources beneath our seabed,” Minister Dipu Moni said.
The tribunal, based in Hamburg, Germany, was established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to adjudicate disputes between states concerning issues covered by the convention, including the delimitation of maritime boundaries.
President of the tribunal Jose Luis Jesus of Cape Verde read out the judgment in the courtroom yesterday around 4:30am Bangladesh time. The 23-member panel of judges of the tribunal delivered its judgment after following a series of procedures and long hearings between September 8 and September 24, 2011, when both the countries presented their arguments.
The verdict, which the judges passed voting 21 to 1, concludes the case initiated by Bangladesh against Myanmar on October 8, 2009, to resolve a longstanding dispute over the maritime boundary.
Sources said Bangladesh lodged cases after India and Myanmar unfairly cut off a significant portion of Bangladesh's maritime area in the Bay.
Bangladesh's objection to Myanmar's claim was lodged with the tribunal and its objection to the Indian claim was filed with the UN's Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague, the Netherlands. The arbitration with India is expected to be settled in 2014.
Bangladesh favours a principle based on "equity" while India and Myanmar favours "equidistance" system to get larger maritime areas.
Under a UN charter, the principle of "equity" takes into account a country's population, economic status and needs, GDP growth, and other issues, while the "equidistance" system marks the boundary through geometric calculations.
According to United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, any such dispute should be resolved on the basis of equity, and in the light of relevant circumstances. This makes Bangladesh's demand for equity-based demarcation justified, experts said.
Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, who was present in the courtroom during the judgment, told The Daily Star immediately afterwards that the people of Bangladesh were deeply connected to and dependent on the Bay of Bengal, both as a source of nutrition and for employment.
The legal certainty afforded by this verdict would ensure that “we will be able to maximize the benefit of this important resource for the people of Bangladesh while at the same time ensuring long-term sustainability,” she added.
The foreign minister said energy-starved Bangladesh's exploration for petroleum and natural gas in the Bay, which had been delayed by conflicting boundary claims, could now proceed.
The judgment would now allow Conoco Philips Bangladesh to explore oil and gas for Bangladesh in deep-sea areas previously marked disputed. The oil company conditionally signed a production sharing contract last year leaving out the disputed areas.
The company kept a provision saying that it would explore the disputed areas after the issue had been settled.
“Today's ruling constitutes the equitable solution that Bangladesh has long desired, but was unable to obtain during the 38 years of diplomatic stalemate preceding the lawsuit,” the foreign minister asserted.
“The bold and visionary decision of the prime minister to seek a binding judicial resolution of this longstanding dispute has been vindicated.
“But it is a victory for both states…because it finally resolves, peacefully and according to international law, a problem that had hampered the economic development of both states for more than three [almost four] decades. We salute Myanmar for its willingness to resolve this matter by legal means and for its acceptance of the tribunal's judgment,” she said.
Myanmar wanted its maritime boundary with Bangladesh cut directly across the Bangladesh coastline, severely truncating Bangladesh's maritime jurisdiction to a narrow wedge of sea not extending beyond 130 miles.
Myanmar also claimed that the tribunal lacked jurisdiction to award continental shelf rights beyond 200 miles from either state's coast.
The tribunal rejected both these arguments.
“We are very pleased with the expertise, fairness and efficiency of the ITLOS [the tribunal] and its judges,” said Dipu Moni. “The case was resolved, from beginning to end, in a little over two years. This is unprecedented in judicial efficiency in a maritime boundary case.”
As the agent of Bangladesh in the proceedings the foreign minister presided over an eminent legal team, including deputy agent Rear Admiral (retd) Md Khurshed Alam, attorneys James Crawford, Philippe Sands and Alan Boyle of the United Kingdom, Paul Reichler and Lawrence Martin of the United States, and Payam Akhavan of Canada.
Myanmar was represented by its agent Attorney General Tun Shin. Its counsels included Alain Pellet and Mathias Forteau of France, Sir Michael Wood of the United Kingdom and Coalter Lathrop of the United States.
It may be mentioned that the army-backed caretaker regime invited bids for offshore exploration in February 2008 after dividing its sea territory in the Bay into 28 blocks.
But both India and Myanmar raised objections in all most all the blocks bordering “their maritime boundaries” that prevented Bangladesh from exploring for oil-gas. Myanmar even claimed rights to part of an area of Bangladesh and at the peak of the dispute in 2008, a war-like situation developed when both countries sent their navy to the disputed area.