RIGHTS AND WRONGS IN BARBADOS, TRINIDAD ROW
By Rickey Singh
February 22, 2004
PERHAPS when Guyanese wind down, after tomorrow, from the intoxicating Mashramani celebrations, they may have more time to reflect on the value of last week's historic visit by President Hugo Chavez in fostering productive Guyana-Venezuela relations. It is an issue I would return to in a later analysis.
For now, I wish to focus on the expanding and worrying deterioration in relations between Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, resulting from a dispute over maritime boundary delimitation in which Guyana and Venezuela have been cited, for different reasons.
What a difference, I noted, a week makes in relations between Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, vital partners to the success of the regional economic integration movement characterised by the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM).
From years of warm friendship embraces between leaders to tough, provocative language last week and failure to meet to talk.
An open disagreement over 'process' in resolving a now 13-year-old dispute over a new fishing agreement between the two states - Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago - quickly escalated into a row over trade relations, followed by a dramatic initiative by Bridgetown for an international ruling on delimitation of maritime boundaries.
In between, two Barbadian fishermen were arrested by the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard, held in prison and then released, without charges.
Not before, however, passions were inflamed by political rhetoric, even as the Director of Public Prosecutions in Port-of-Spain requested a probe to determine who authorised the sudden release of the fishermen. The jury is still out on this.
Amid rising tension, inspired by aggressive language and posturings, starting in Bridgetown and reciprocated, to a lesser extent, in Port-of-Spain, two related meetings - one at ministerial level, the other at heads of government level - failed to take place, while Barbados triggered the dispute settlement mechanism under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
With the envelope so significantly pushed, competing media headlines in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago were pointing to official arrangements to place Coast Guard services on high alert, while endless briefings were taking place in Bridgetown - some involving security, media, labour and business sectors personnel.
Inevitably, as so often happens in conflict situations of such a nature between two neighbouring states with traditionally good relations, there were Bajans and Trinis to consistently shout their emotional responses in radio talk shows in support of "our side".
Encouragingly, however, there remains a good body of people, across both countries and the domestic political divide, who continue to reflect the view that there is much more that unite than divide them in our Caribbean region.
Irrespective, that is of what more than the proverbial pestle may be in the mortar - whether it is the migratory flying fish, oil or natural gas. There are reasons to believe that all three may be involved.
One very disturbing factor in the deteriorating relations between the two CARICOM partner states is not so much over their respective contention on proprietary claims to marine, mineral resources and territorial jurisdiction, based on international law.
Rather, the manner in which they are publicly exposing their disagreements, bordering on a level of hostility, that has grave implications for CARICOM as a whole, including jeopardising arrangements for the realisation of the Caribbean Single Market (CSME) and the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
At the time of writing this column on Friday evening, neither Prime Minister Arthur nor Prime Minister Manning thought of even making a personal telephone call to the current chairman of CARICOM, Prime Minister P. J. Patterson of Jamaica to simply put him in the picture. But they have been talking to a lot of other people.
And while they would have had separate meetings with the Community's Secretary General, Edwin Carrington, no formal request was ever made to involve CARICOM in a mediation role on the fishing rights dispute and implications for trade relations under Protocol 9 of the revised Chaguaramas Treaty.
Barbados' move to compulsory and binding arbitration under the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea now renders any such CARICOM involvement unnecessary.
As I understand it, Barbados has been preparing for such a course of action for some three years as an inevitability, based on its expressed frustration over the perceived foot-dragging attitude of Trinidad and Tobago on the vital dimension of their dispute - delimitation of maritime boundaries, within which is located the old fishing rights problem.
It is true that having now gone the route of arbitration under UNCLOS, a potential course of action - before the outburst of acrimonious language - could have been Protocol 9 of the revised CARICOM Treaty pertaining to dispute settlement.
But, as the Barbados Attorney General, Mia Mottley, has pointed out in her media briefings, the Community's dispute settlement mechanism does not provide for a comprehensive body of rules to effectively deal with maritime boundary delimitation; and ultimately the dispute would have had to be referred to UNCLOS to which both countries are parties.
Reasonable as this seems, there is no good reason why a third party like CARICOM, should not have been invited, in any case, to act in good faith in helping both parties to diffuse tension and restore normalcy and civility in their relations and avoid the still looming trade war that could have negative spin-offs in other critical areas - like the culture and entertainment industry.
Let it be said that when dispassionately assessed, Prime Minister Patrick Manning's administration would get more credit for showing evident restraint in both language and approaches, although the claim by Barbados of perplexing delays in responses from Port-of-Spain to specific proposals for moving the dispute process forward, should not be ignored.
Manning did travel, even without invitation, to Barbados to meet with Arthur. His Barbadian counterpart did not reciprocate, as expected on Friday when he failed to show up in Port-of-Spain. Manning calmly said "we were not surprised".
The official explanation offered in Bridgetown would NOT easily satisfy the question why the specific concern over non-communication by Port-of-Spain about a Memorandum of Understanding it had signed with Venezuela since August 12, 2003, could not have surfaced as a priority issue for discussion at the scheduled Manning-Arthur meeting.
Failure to have that meeting would have further exacerbated the strained relations. And this is where there remains room for informal, or formal intervention by a third party like CARICOM to help cool tempers, even as the process is in train for UNCLOS involvement.
If Trinidad and Tobago has been lax in communicating with Barbados on the MOU of 2003 pertaining to exploitation of mineral resources in an area that Barbados claims to fall within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the Arthur administration still has it within its capacity to pull back from a confrontation course with Trinidad and Tobago.
The people of Trinidad and Tobago are in the final lap of Carnival 2004. Come Ash Wednesday, some of them may not be as conciliatory a mood as they were last Friday while Manning and his arch rival for power, former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, were meeting in Port-of-Spain to demonstrate common unity in face of the marine resources and maritime delimitation boundary dispute with Barbados.