BANGLADESH on February 26submitted its claim to the United Nations over its extension of continental shelf in the Bay of Bengal according to Clause 76 (8) of the United Nations Conferences on the Law of the Seas 1982, known as UNCLOS III. Bangladesh and its neighbouring countries, India and Myanmar, have ratified this convention. Myanmar submitted its claim on the Bay of Bengal on December 5, 2008, India on May 11, 2009. Before Bangladesh put its claims, it floated tenders to explore some deep-sea blocks in its continental shelf in April 2008. India and Myanmar put objections to those tenders claiming the areas are owned by them. Bangladesh took this matter to UN in November 2009 to settle the disputes over the ownership as per UNCLOS III.
The Law of the Sea
THE present day Law of the Sea is the outcome of United Nations conferences on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS I of 1958, UNCLOS II of 1960 and UNCLOS III of 1982. According to Articles 3 and 15 of UNCLOS III, every state has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from baselines in the line of low water tide along the seashore of a state. As per Article 17, ships of all states, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea. Article 33 gives authority of a state on certain other matters to further 12 nautical miles called as contiguous zone. Article 55 allows an exclusive economic zone, an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea, where the coastal state has sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources. As per Article 57, this economic zone shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines. The UNCLOS III of 1982 in its Article 76 gives rights to the coastal states to own some more areas beyond the economic zone called the continental shelf.
AS PER Article 76 sub-article 1, the continental shelf of a coastal state comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin. As per sub-article 3, the continental margin comprises the submerged prolongation of the land mass of the coastal state, and consists of the seabed and subsoil of the shelf, the slope and the rise. As the limits of sea boundary prolongs towards the deep sea, disputes should arise between adjacent states on their boundaries and claims over their natural resources. To resolve the disputes sub-article 4(a) of Article 76 gives clarifications that the coastal state shall establish the outer edge of the continental margin beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines by either, i) a line delineated where the thickness of sedimentary rocks is at least one per cent of the shortest distance from the foot of the continental slope; or ii) line delineated in accordance to fixed points not more than 60 nautical miles from the foot of the continental slope. Article 76 limits the continental shelf on the seabed, drawn in accordance with paragraph 4 (a) (i) and (ii), not beyond 350 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured, or not beyond 100 nautical miles from the 2,500-metre isobath, which is a line connecting the depth of 2,500 metres.
Disputes with India and Myanmar
BANGLADESH in 1989 divided its mainland and territorial waters into 23 blocks for gas and oil exploration. In 2008, eight blocks under exclusive economic zone and 20 blocks under continental shelf were tendered inviting interested parties for exploration. But objections were raised from India and Myanmar over claims on those deep-sea blocks. A recent discovery of huge hydrocarbon reserve in the continental shelves of India in Orissa, and Myanmar in Rakhaine states triggered these disputes with Bangladeshi claims. Bangladesh needs to solve this problem as per Articles 59 and 76 of UNCLOS III.
Article 59 of UNCLOS III says, in cases where the convention does not attribute rights or jurisdiction to the coastal state or to other states within the exclusive economic zone, and a conflict arises between the interests of the coastal state and any other state or states, the conflict should be resolved on the basis of equity and in the light of all the relevant circumstances, taking into account the respective importance of the interests involved to the parties as well as to the international community as a whole. As per this article, Bangladesh’s claim of equity should be based on all relevant circumstances, particularly the basis of sedimentary rocks deposited from its mainland.
Bangladesh with its Territorial Waters and Maritime Zones Act of 1974 was rather unaware of its rights in the deep sea. Following the equidistant formula for setting limits of the territorial sea between adjacent states, Bangladesh extended its boundary limits in 1989 by straight lines and remained content with its exclusive economic zone. In 2006, when India floated tender for offshore exploration in the Bay of Bengal, the Bangladesh government only got concerned, as the media reported that India has encroached into its EEZ block number 21 (see http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/%5Cpapers19%5Cpaper1877.html).
India signed a production sharing contract with Australian company Santos on March 2, 2007 for oil exploration in the block NEC-DWN-2004/2. The Myanmar government awarded the offshore blocks AD-8 to China National Petroleum Corporation of China and AD-9 to Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India, in addition to block AD7 to Daewoo of Korea.
As India and Myanmar started their aggression into Bangladesh waters, the Bangladesh government also started preparing for third round bidding for oil and gas exploration in the deep sea with a fresh production sharing contract. By April 2008, Bangladesh delineated its outer boundary of the continental shelf and floated tender for exploration on eight shallow water and 20 deep sea blocks. India and Myanmar quickly opposed this move claiming Bangladeshi tenders were on their blocks. But Bangladesh navy was active to put pressure on Santos not to encroach into Bangladesh waters. The navy was also deployed, in a similar move, to thwart attempt by Daewoo rigs to explore in the AD7 block of Myanmar (The Daily Star, November 14, 2008).
This area would fall under the Bangladesh deep sea block No DS-08-13 about 60 kilometres off St Martin’s Island.
The Bangladesh government took a commendable step in November 2009 by approaching to the UN to resolve its sea boundary dispute with neighbours as per its convention. Another commendable step was taken in February this year, when it put forward its claim of sea boundary to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, known as CLCS. Though this claim was not made public, it is known that the claims were made in accordance with the Article 76 and its Clauses 1, 2, 3, 4 (a) and (b), 5, 6 and 7. Clauses 4 and 6 of Article 76 set out specific formula to establish outer edges of the continental shelf of a country. The claim submitted has an executive summary and an outline map which has references fixed points defined by coordinates, and straight lines joining them not exceeding 60 nautical miles in length. These are required as per the Clause 7 of Article 76. Bangladesh claim is also supported by technical and scientific data prepared with the support of the navy, Geological Survey of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Oil, Gas and Mineral Corporation, Bangladesh Petroleum Exploration and Production Company, Space Research and Remote Sensing Organisation and Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority.
The offshore blocks NEC-DWN-2004/1 and NEC-DWN-2004/2 and part of D31 of India, and blocks AD7, AD8, AD9, AD10, AD11, AD12, AD13 and AD14 of Myanmar fall under the waters of Bangladesh as per UN Convention, is illustrated in the map. Bangladesh has taken a rightful step for winning its sea boundary by diplomacy rather than war. In the name of equity, India and Myanmar are now trying to pursue Bangladesh for a negotiated settlement. But the matter is now under the disposal of the UN Commission, where it is to be settled according to the convention set by the international community. Any attempt of bypassing the convention would be a matter of objection from it. Against this backdrop, our present stand in claiming our sea boundary appears to be just and very strong. We should not make any delay now in updating our Territorial Waters and Maritime Zones Act of 1974 according to the UNCLOS III of 1982.