Reason must prevail

Stabroek News
July 19, 2000

Let us be clear. Suriname used force to remove an oil rig from waters over which she had no legitimate claim. She acted in defiance of international law, in defiance of the conventions governing relations between states, in defiance of the norms which operate among the sister nations of Caricom, and, let it be said, in defiance of the Zeitgeist. While the rest of the world is inching its way inexorably towards a global 'rule of law,' in which the intrusion into other people's territorial space can find no acceptance, the Government of Suriname has turned away its face to look towards the past. Affecting the insolence of an imperial power in its nineteenth century heyday, it sent its gunboats into the Eagle drilling zone as the first move in an operation to acquire by a process of bullying, that which could never be acquired in a tribunal applying legal principles.

There is no formal treaty governing our border with Suriname. But that does not mean to say that Guyana's claim to sovereignty in the location in which CGX sought to drill is not beyond dispute. Guyana has applied what is called a line of equidistance to divide the territorial seas and continental shelf of Suriname and this country. This line is in conformity with the International Law of the Sea Convention, to which both nations are signatories, and which stipulates that the principle of equidistance should be the operative one in the absence of a maritime boundary.

According to Mr Cedric Joseph, writing in the Sunday Stabroek of June 18, the principle of equidistance for determining the boundary in the continental shelf where no agreement obtains, had been established long before the Law of the Sea Convention, since the international convention on the continental shelf reached in Geneva in 1958, also incorporated it in Article 6(2).

If Suriname is not applying the line of equidistance as international law requires in the circumstances, whence does her line originate? It goes back to the 1930s, when the colonial powers, Britain and the Netherlands had decided to conclude a treaty settling the boundary. The general terms of the draft which found favour with both sides provided that the New River Triangle would be Guyana's, the whole of the Corentyne river would go to Suriname, and the territorial sea would be divided by a line originating at No 61 village bearing ten degrees east of true north. This line, of course, was only projected out across the limited territorial sea of the time, because this was before anyone had introduced the notion of an EEZ into maritime law.

The problem is that owing to the intervention of the Second World War, this draft was never signed. After the war various other drafts were considered, but they too were never finalized.

In 1936, however, it had been expected that the draft treaty would have been signed, and as a consequence, Britain (on behalf of the then British Guiana), the Netherlands (on behalf of Suriname) and Brazil in that year laid down the tri-junction pillar marking the point where the boundaries of the three states converged. Britain and the Netherlands also did something else. They laid down the two concrete markers close to No 61 village representing the starting point of the ten degree line. This is the line to which Suriname is now so doggedly adhering, although there has never been agreement on it. Both Guyana's equidistance line, as well as Suriname's ten degree line originate at No 61 village, and the area between the ten degree line (which runs close to our river bank) and the line of equidistance (to the east of it) is now being called the area of overlap.

Guyana has traditionally exercised sovereignty in the so-called area of overlap, giving out oil concessions to companies like the California Oil Company, Guyana Shell and Oxoco, and licensing drilling operations there in 1974-75. At no time in the past has Suriname ever raised a protest about this.

What seems to have happened is that Suriname in opportunistic fashion thought she saw an opening to wring territorial concessions out of Guyana by using the oil rig as a lever. Calculating that Guyana was too politically divided to confront the crisis in any coherent, unified way, and aware that she lacked the military capacity to protect her maritime zone, our neighbour to the east sent in her gunboats. She has now damned the economic prospects in the short term both for herself and Guyana, possibly endangered a company by wiping out the investments of its shareholders, undermined Caricom and brought herself into international disrepute.

Now that the talks have collapsed, where is Guyana to go from here? First of all, it should be said that the Government was right to make no territorial concessions to Suriname during the recent negotiations, and to bring an end to the discussions. There is little doubt that it will receive national backing on that score. We could not discuss the border in a situation of economic blackmail; the issue on the table could only have been the return of the CGX rig to its drilling site. However, after five gruelling sessions of talks, it appears that our eastern neighbour is no better at adhering to the rules of negotiation, than she is to adhering to the international rule of law.

In the face of such irrationality further bilateral talks - even with the aid of such skilled facilitators as those Jamaica provided - are futile. Let us move to get the border dispute in the east settled as soon as is feasible, by taking the issue to a forum such as the World Court - unilaterally, if necessary. Hooliganism of this order cannot be rewarded; in the end, reason must prevail.

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