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Nicaragua v. Colombia (ICJ 2016)

June 29, 2018
Scott Edmonds

Ever since Nicaragua brought a case against Colombia to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2016, entitled: “Question of the Delimitation of the Continental Shelf between Nicaragua and Colombia beyond 200 M from the Nicaragua Coast,” the Court has been faced with the question of whether or not there is a hierarchy to continental shelf claims. In other words, would a coastal State’s 200 nautical mile (M) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) entitlement to the continental shelf and superjacent waters under Part V of UNCLOS prevail over an opposing coastal State’s claim to an extended continental shelf under Part VI? The former being based on a legal entitlement of all coastal States and the latter based on a geomorphologic claim by a coastal State that its shelf satisfies the stipulations set out in Part VI of UNCLOS beyond 200 M, which must be subsequently reviewed and approved by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).

In its 2012 Judgment on the maritime boundary between these two States, the ICJ loosely defined the 200 M seaward limit of Nicaragua’s EEZ entitlement as the “approximate eastern limit of the relevant area,” but stated that Nicaragua had “not established that it has a continental margin that extends far enough to overlap with Colombia’s 200-nautical-mile entitlement to the continental shelf, measured from Colombia’s mainland coast. . . .” This new case is Nicaragua’s attempt to recast its scientific findings in hopes of convincing the Court that it has an entitlement to the continental shelf beyond 200 M from its baselines.

Map from 2012 ICJ Judgment Colombia v. Nicaragua

Assuming for a moment that Nicaragua’s claim to an extended continental shelf in the western Caribbean Sea were to be upheld, and if this area were found to overlap Colombia’s 200 M EEZ entitlement, the question then remains as to whether or not this overlapping area of continental shelf entitlements (seabed and subsoil only) would require delimitation. Or, on the other hand, whether Colombia’s 200 M entitlements would automatically prevail due to the legal nature of the EEZ entitlement.

State practice seems to favor the position that extended continental shelf claims are reserved for areas of seabed that fall beyond 200 M from any coastal State’s baselines. In the general vicinity of the western Caribbean Sea, Mexico, Cuba, and the United States have all made extended continental shelf claims in the Gulf of Mexico. However, those claims have all been limited to the areas known as the “Eastern Gap” and the “Western Gap.” None of the extended continental shelf claims have ventured into the 200 M EEZ of neighboring States.

Map from The Heritage Foundation

In the North Atlantic, the enclaved French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon illustrate very clearly this respect of the 200 M EEZ entitlement. In its consideration of an extended continental shelf claim for these dependent islands, France has recognized that the extended continental shelf in the area south of St. Pierre and Miquelon’s maritime corridor starts beyond Canada’s 200 M EEZ entitlement limit. Their hopes of acquiring a portion of this potentially oil-rich outer continental shelf area would have them making a discontinuous “leap frog” claim over Canada’s 200 M EEZ entitlement, and thus landing in the outer continental shelf beyond any Canadian legal entitlement.

Map from st-pierre-et-miquelon.org

It is important to note that the ICJ’s ruling in this case will only impact sovereign rights to the seabed and subsoil, since Nicaragua would have no EEZ entitlement beyond 200 M from its baselines. Therefore, the more seaward location of the San Andres archipelago, which the Court has already ruled are part of Colombia’s sovereign territory, would give Colombia the sovereign rights to the resources found in the shelf’s superjacent waters regardless of which State might be granted the sovereign rights to the continental shelf below.

A Cartographer Visits the Prime Meridian

May 9, 2018
Marissa Wood

Like any dedicated mapmaker, visiting the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and the Prime Meridian were at the top of my tourist to-dos on a recent trip to London.

Today, the Prime Meridian is located in the yard of the Royal Observatory at the top of the hill in Greenwich Park. One can look “down” the marked line, due north, and take in the National Maritime Museum and Queen’s House, the Thames, and London shimmering in glass in the distance. I found the view incredible, especially on a rare, sunny March day. But the Prime Meridian itself was a bit of a letdown. Sure, it’s neat to straddle the line and have a foot on either side of zero. And yeah, its cool to stand at the precise longitudinal location from which time was standardized. But it’s really just a metal ribbon slicing through an old stone courtyard.

However, if one turns around and glances back at the Observatory, things start to get a little interesting. Due south of the Prime Meridian, just a few feet—I mean about a meter—away is a great big telescope, the Transit Circle telescope constructed by Sir George Biddell Airy in 1850 to be exact. Airy’s Transit Circle telescope was used to precisely measure the movements of stars as they crossed the Prime Meridian.

There is another telescope to the left of Airy’s, and then another smaller, older one. Following the view of these earlier telescopes toward London back into the yard, one’s eye catches another prime meridian to the west of the Prime Meridian and yet another stone marking yet another important meridian to history. Each of these meridians were used to chart stars and measure longitude and time. But with each new telescope, more precise and accurate than the last, the Prime Meridian was pushed to the east by a few yards (meters) as the building was extended to accommodate the latest equipment.

I was struck by how arbitrary the location of the Prime Meridian is. 0˚ is located at the top of a hill outside of London because it was convenient for an astronomer of history to put it there. The world decided that this line, several iterations after the original, was the Prime Meridian at the International Meridian Conference in Washington DC, in 1884. Adopting the Prime Meridian as an international standard allowed for time to be consistent amongst nations and made maritime charting and navigation more accurate.

Then a third truth struck me. Standing with feet on either side of zero, I checked the GPS on my phone, and it placed me ever so slightly to the west of 0˚. Apparently, the Prime Meridian as marked isn’t even the Prime Meridian anymore. It was moved unceremoniously about 100 meters to the east based on standardization of Earth’s geodesy in 1984. It was yet another arbitrary move; although, probably even more math went into this adjustment than Airy’s original placement of his telescope in 1850.

The International Date Line is wrong

March 29, 2018
Tim Montenyohl

The other day Kevin was working on a project in the Pacific, and complained to me about those geometric, square lines that are commonly used to divide up the Pacific islands. “Where do those lines come from?” His question was more rhetorical than directed towards me, but it did get me thinking.

Suspecting the lines may be sourced from time zones, I peeked at a time zone map and realized: the International Date Line (IDL) is wrong. To be clear, the IDL is made up, with no established standard. It’s still however standardized enough that Natural Earth has a shapefile of it, which seems to match every other version one can find. This existing IDL is accurate in terms of dividing land up into proper time zones, but it completely ignores maritime sovereignty.


From wikipedia, so it must be true

Sovereignty is the driving force behind time zones, and therefore the IDL. If American Samoa decides it wants to switch from observing UTC–11, to observing UTC+13, that would redefine the IDL (it would also basically abolish a whole day for them). But American Samoa isn’t going to specify a different time zone for their maritime space. (I mean as a sovereign nation they could, but for what purpose?) When a nation adheres to a specific time zone, it’s pretty safe to assume that it also applies to its maritime space. So I came up with a thought experiment: What if we redefined the IDL using maritime sovereignty?

This wasn’t as clear-cut as I thought it would be. There’s a little problem with Kiribati. As a nation, it’s clumped into three groups; Gilbert Islands, Phoenix Islands, and Line Islands. The Line Islands are basically a time zone enclave, being well within the Western hemisphere, but observing a very Easternly UTC+14. (No other country observes that time zone.) It makes sense however, that the island nation as a whole would want to be on the same day.

The existing IDL has a somewhat awkward bridge between the Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands. I redrew the IDL using maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), and maintained that awkward bridge.

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Awkward bridge, now with more detail!

I can’t call this experiment over after drawing this sovereignty-based IDL. See those gray hairlines in the above map? Those are Extended Continental Shelf (ECS) submissions. These are created unilaterally, so it’s questionable how much weight should be given to them. The problem with my new IDL is that the Awkward Bridge goes right across the ECS claim of Cook Islands, which is on the other side of the IDL as Kiribati. Alternatively, I can make an IDL that recognizes ECS submissions, but that means redirecting the bridge.


Including ECS submissions, Awkward Bridge is… still awkward

This map gives full weight to countries’ ECS submissions (remember, questionable). Regardless of validity, those submissions should probably be on the same side of the IDL as the submitting nation. So Awkward Bridge now reaches over Jarvis Island as opposed to running below it. But does Awkward Bridge even need to exist? If it didn’t, the Line Islands would truly be an IDL enclave, which I’d like to point out, is also an awkward situation.


“Existing” IDL vs. my 2 new versions

So the big question in redefining the IDL is how to incorporate ECS submissions, if at all. I’m fine with the all-or-nothing approaches presented above. The only artistic license I’ve taken is how I’ve connected Phoenix Islands & Line Islands. Hopefully a more sovereignty-based IDL, however drawn, will eventually replace the existing, rectilinear version.

Newly Signed Maritime Boundary Closes “Gap” in the Timor Sea

March 14, 2018
Kevin Danaher

On March 6, 2018, Australia and Timor-Leste signed a treaty establishing a maritime boundary in the Timor Sea. The oil-rich maritime area in question had been a source of conflict leading up to Timor-Leste’s independence in 2002, with tensions between this tiny country and its larger neighbor to the south only growing worse since. In negotiations, Australia sought a boundary along its continental shelf, while Timor-Leste aimed for a median line dividing the maritime space between the two. In 2016, Timor-Leste filed a “notice instituting conciliation” with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), which has since facilitated negotiations between the two nations to resolve the dispute. It is of note that this was the first ever PCA conciliation to be initiated under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and it has successfully led to a bilateral maritime agreement.

The new continental shelf boundary is made up of 13 points (TA-1 through TA-13), all of which are connected by geodesic lines, and the exclusive economic zone boundary is defined by five of these (TA-5 through TA-10), with the eastern half of the EEZ boundary following the principle of equidistance. On both sides, the continental shelf boundary abuts existing “zones of shared sovereignty” in place between Australia and Indonesia. Within these areas, Australia maintains rights to the seabed and Indonesia to the EEZ/water column. This arrangement between Australia and Indonesia stems from 1972 and 1997 agreements, from which the newly established Australia-Timor-Leste boundary has gleaned several of its turning points.

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Map depicting the new Australia-Timor-Leste boundary, as well as zones of shared sovereignty between Australia and Indonesia. Dashed blue lines are strict equidistance lines.

Due to the existence of shared sovereignty zones and the history of delimitations between Australia and Indonesia in the Timor Sea, an interesting term is found in Article 2 of the treaty: It defines several of the continental shelf boundary segments as “Provisional.” The treaty elaborates on this in Article 3, essentially making accommodations for a future delimitation between Timor-Leste and Indonesia by allowing the “Provisional” segments defined in Article 2 to be adjusted under certain conditions.

A major aspect of the treaty involves existing oil fields and the dividing of oil revenue. The path of the maritime boundary leaves Timor-Leste with sovereignty over several oil fields previously shared with Australia in the now-defunct Joint Petroleum Development Area (defined in 2002 by the Timor Sea Treaty). A “Special Regime Area” is now defined surrounding the Greater Sunrise Fields, and the treaty includes language to split revenue from these fields depending on where oil is piped and processed, however always in favor of Timor-Leste.

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Map depicting the Greater Sunrise Fields and the delimited Special Regime Area. Source: Annex C, Treaty between Australia and the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste Establishing their Maritime Boundaries in the Timor Sea.

The establishment of a maritime border and signing of a treaty is seen as a great win for stability in this region, and especially for the country of Timor-Leste, which has come away with solidified sovereignty over known oil reserves — a potentially major stimulus to a long-struggling economy. However, the treaty also raises some questions; How will boundary negotiations go between Indonesia and Timor-Leste? And, based on the outcome of the Australia – Timor-Leste treaty, will Indonesia attempt to renegotiate its maritime boundaries with Australia?

A full version of the treaty can be accessed here.

International Court Settles Land, Maritime Disputes between Costa Rica and Nicaragua

February 16, 2018
Meghan Gilbert

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) delivered a Judgment on 2 February 2018 that resolved the land and maritime disputes between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The Court delimited the maritime boundary, reaffirmed Costa Rican sovereignty over Isla Portillos, and ordered the Nicaraguan government to remove a military camp located in the wetland of Isla Portillos.

This is not the first time that arbitration has occurred to resolve disputes between the two countries. Their boundary was arbitrated by the United States during the 19th century, and in 2010, Costa Rica initiated proceedings against Nicaragua at the ICJ following the establishment of a Nicaraguan military camp in Isla Portillos. The Court ruled in 2015 that the presence of the camp violated Costa Rican sovereignty.

Nicaragua withdrew its troops from Isla Portillos in accordance with the 2015 Judgment but constructed a new camp within the area in the following months. Costa Rica filed new proceedings in January 2017 and argued that the Court had already ruled that Costa Rica held sovereignty over the area.

In 2014, Costa Rica initiated a case against Nicaragua concerning the maritime boundary following unsuccessful bilateral talks and the Nicaraguan allocation of disputed maritime space to several oil companies. The Court decided to join the proceedings of the Isla Portillos and maritime disputes, which led to this Judgment.

The Isla Portillos dispute stems from conflicting interpretations of a 19th century border treaty and arbitration. The features described in the treaty have disappeared due to coastal recession, which prompted the Court to redefine the boundary in the absence of these historic features. They ultimately allocated Isla Portillos to Costa Rica and Harbor Head Lagoon to Nicaragua.

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Map depicting the boundary along Isla Portillos. Source: ICJ Judgment.

The Court delimited a single boundary along the territorial sea, exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and continental shelf using the principle of equidistance.

For the Caribbean maritime boundary, strict equidistance was modified by the Court to give the Corn Islands (Nicaragua) half-effect. The Court also addressed several other issues concerning this boundary, including a frequently changing coastline and the overlapping entitlements of third States.

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The Caribbean maritime boundary delimited by the Court. Source: ICJ Judgment.

Erosion along the mouth of the San Juan River frequently alters the shape of the Caribbean coastline. Taking this into account, the Court established a fluid starting point of the maritime boundary that lies wherever the mouth of the San Juan River is currently located, and a fixed point two nautical miles out to sea.

This approach is similar to the Court’s treatment of other cases involving volatile coastlines. In Honduras v. Nicaragua, the Court established the starting-point of the maritime boundary at a distance of three nautical miles seaward from the mouth of the Coco River due to the instability of the coastline in that area.

The Court treaded cautiously regarding overlapping entitlements of third States in the Caribbean. Colombia and Panama have both delimited boundaries in the relevant maritime area in this case. The Judgment emphasizes that the establishment of the maritime boundary is without prejudice to any overlapping claims or entitlements of third States, as the maritime space of third States cannot be identified in the proceedings of the case.

The Judgment’s effect on third States remains to be seen, however it will likely have significant impact on future maritime boundary negotiations in the Caribbean, especially if Colombia and Panama stake additional claims in the area.

The Pacific maritime boundary is more straightforward than that of the Caribbean. Half-effect was given to the Santa Elena Peninsula (Costa Rica) to obtain a more equitable division of the relevant maritime space.


Map of the Pacific maritime boundary. Source: ICJ Judgment.

Both States have hailed the proceedings as a victory in government press releases. The Judgment will likely have a significant effect on Costa Rican–Nicaraguan relations and maritime boundary negotiations in the Caribbean Sea involving other States.

The full text of the Judgment can be accessed here.

Korea and the Olympics

January 19, 2018
Marissa Wood

This is not a story about whose button is bigger but one of war, sports, and lines on maps.

The Korean Peninsula was first divided after World War II along the 38th parallel between a Soviet-protected north and a US-backed south. It was meant to be a temporary line of separation with the goal of restoring a unified Korean government after decades of Japanese occupation.

But by 1950 the icy fingers of the Cold War gripped the peninsula. The United States and the Soviet Union could not agree on a single Korean government. Then, on June 25, North Korean soldiers crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea, and the Korean War began.

Most of the fighting had trailed off by 1951 and talks of a truce had begun. However, an actual armistice agreement wasn’t signed until 1953. The line separating North and South Korea was adjusted from the 38th parallel to coincide with the frontlines at the end of the Korean War. A 2 km demilitarized zone extends on either side of the Military Demarcation Line.

While talks of reunification have occurred at various points throughout the 20th century, the 1953 Military Demarcation Line continues to serve as the de facto border between North and South Korea.

Soldier (D. E. Grenier) alongside a demarcation sign at Panmunjom, Korea in 1956. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by author Goldblatt.

The 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang are not South Korea’s first time hosting. Its capital city of Seoul held the 1988 Summer Olympics. North Korea refused to attend those Games and attempted to convince their communist allies to boycott the competition as well. The 1988 Summer Games are one of only two missed events since North Korea first started attending the Olympics in 1964. North Korean athletes have won a total of 55 medals excelling in summer sports such as weightlifting and wrestling.

South Korea has participated in every Olympic event since 1948 except for the 1980 Moscow Games. Their athletes have also performed well in the summer games, particularly in judo and archery, and have won over 260 summer and 50 winter medals.

Despite two years of icy relations between North and South Korea, a thaw set in after Kim Jong-un’s 2018 New Year’s Day address where the supreme leader discussed participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics. The two countries have now committed to walking under the Korean Unification Flag at the Opening Ceremony and creating a joint women’s ice hockey team. North Korea has plans to send a large group of athletes, a cheering squad, and other members of cultural demonstration groups across the 1953 Military Demarcation Line and on to Pyeongchang to compete in the 2018 Olympics.