Guyana, Suriname, Britain and The Netherlands Editorial
Stabroek News
April 18, 2002

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A week before Jack Straw, British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, paid a visit to Georgetown to attend the Third Caribbean-United Kingdom Forum on 3-4 April, the Dutch Foreign Minister Jozias van Aartsen had worked his way through a four-day visit on 21-24 March to Paramaribo to hold talks with Suriname's Foreign Minister Marie Levens and Defence Minister Ronald Assen, among others.

At a press conference at the end of the visit, van Aartsen announced that The Netherlands would assist Suriname with information that, in about five years time, would help it to determine its precise maritime boundaries with Guyana and the extent of its economic zone. Van Aartsen's commitment is consistent with Assen's announcement in November 2000 that Dutch Defence Minister Jan Pronk had indicated then that The Netherlands might be prepared to pay the costs of a possible arbitration commission to resolve the Guyana-Suriname boundary controversy 'within five years'.

British ministers have been a lot less forthcoming on the issue, promising no specific assistance beyond the High Commission's advice that 'the UK's public records were open to anyone and that Guyana could make use of them as required'. Straw himself would go only as far as saying that the 'UK supports Guyana's positions in the border controversy' and the issues were best dealt with at the diplomatic level. Great news! In his brief meeting with Straw in London on 26 June last year, President Bharrat Jagdeo 'raised' the territorial issues and came away with as weighty commitments then, as now.

Presidents Bharrat Jagdeo and Ronald Venetiaan, during the former's 28-29 January 2002 visit to Paramaribo, set an optimistic but unrealistic timetable for sub-committees to examine and make recommendations for the best practices and modalities for joint exploration and exploitation of resources in the disputed maritime zone. But these remedies are rooted in the question of sovereignty which shipwrecked the talks in Montego Bay two years ago! The prospect of progress out of the proposed meetings of the Border Commission next month is dim.

Over the past decade or so, Guyana laboured under the illusion that its 1991 MOU with Suriname, calling on both countries to respect petroleum exploration concession licences granted in mutually-claimed areas, would be respected only to learn, in June 2000, that Suriname had thrown the MOU overboard. There are no grounds to expect that another short-term MOU with another fractious Suriname coalition administration would fare better without resolving the fundamental question of sovereignty.

This is the reason why the two European states --Britain and The Netherlands -- must take the plunge and help their former colonies to chart a clear course that could lead to a permanent solution to the controversy. Since 1926, more than 40 years before Guyana's Independence, Britain and The Netherlands had been negotiating this very matter; they established a mixed Commission in 1936; conducted joint surveys; drafted proposals governing the Kutari, Corentyne and New Rivers; outlined the demarcation of territorial waters and the continental shelf; plotted median lines and plotted much else concerning the border.

In May 1966, Britain handed the unfinished business and inconclusive negotiations to the inexperienced Guyana and, not surprisingly, the Netherlands abandoned talks within a month. In essence, the positions of the respective British/Guyana and Dutch/Suriname sides remained unchanged since 1966.

On the one hand, many issues were clarified by subsequent developments in the international Law of the Sea, but on the other, nationalism, emotionalism, sensationalism and the discovery of proven petroleum deposits in the disputed zone complicated bilateral negotiations. Furthermore, few local politicians who dive into the treacherous waters of international negotiation have sufficient grasp of the legal and technical data nor, as their pleas for help suggest, do they possess the voluminous information accumulated by 75 years of exploration, argumentation, investigation and documentation.

The Guyana-Suriname maritime controversy, embedded in decades of Anglo-Dutch colonial competition, is not a task for local sub-committees. Britain and The Netherlands must accept responsibility for this colonial legacy and, along with Guyana and Suriname, establish a quadripartite commission to bring this matter to a satisfactory and permanent conclusion.

Britain and The Netherlands got Guyana and Suriname into these rough waters in the first place and they must get us out now.