The fishing dispute
February 20, 2004
This time a border issue has arisen from an unexpected direction. The Barbados-Trinidad fishing dispute, which Barbados Prime Minister Owen Arthur has stated has its origins in the 1990 maritime delimitation treaty between Trinidad and Venezuela, has implications for us, since the treaty impinges on Guyana's maritime space as well as that of Barbados. Prime Minister Arthur has since announced that his country will take the matter of the treaty to arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. "I believe Prime Minister Manning [of Trinidad] shares my assessment," he was reported as saying, "that there is no possibility of a negotiated settlement of the maritime boundary between Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago that does not compromise the interests of ... Guyana."
Foreign Minister Insanally was suitably tight-lipped about how Guyana would proceed in the light of this news - it is not a straightforward issue from our point of view - although he did say that this country's concerns about the treaty had been registered earlier with the United Nations Secretary- General, as well as with both the signatory nations concerned. We also reported in our edition yesterday that on the eve of the general election of 1992, a delegation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was supposed to have held talks about the treaty in Trinidad, but that the trip was cancelled after being deemed untimely.
The Caribbean Sea and our portion of the Atlantic Ocean are very overcrowded maritime zones, and the scramble to exploit hydrocarbon and fishing resources in the region have led to tensions between nations before. Their treaty notwithstanding, Trinidad and Venezuela, for instance, had their own spat over fishing in the Gulf of Paria in the 1990s, and in 2001 the Bird Island issue raised its head. The islet in and of itself is not the problem, since it is nothing more than a sliver of sand and coral which disappears below the water line at certain times of the year, and in the view of geologists, will be wiped off the map altogether in due course. However, the maritime boundaries of a number of Eastern Caribbean territories are distorted by Venezuela's assertion of a 200-mile limit, calculated on the basis of her claim to Bird Island.
Venezuela, in fact, has been very aggressive in the prosecution of her claims to sea-space, her tactic traditionally being to knock off the territories one by one - particularly if they were controlled by larger players - with bilateral agreements. This 'skittles' tactic, so to speak, has been very successful to date, but there has never been any sustained effort on the part of the smaller players to work on a common position in relation to the various disputes both betwen themselves, and with Venezuela.
In July 2001, President Vicente Fox of Mexico proposed a Caribbean conference with Venezuela to discuss maritime boundaries in the region. It produced little reaction, possibly because the anglophone Caribbean realized it would make little sense unless its members crafted something like a common approach among themselves on the various issues first. No initiative - even under the auspices of Caricom which would have been the logical body - followed President Fox's suggestion, although the OECS did adopt a united position on Bird Island, which after all, affected several of its nine members.
Guyana, of course, has very special problems both in her eastern and western maritime zones, and where the first of these is concerned, has undermined her own negotiating position by allowing Suriname's accession to Caricom. The major complicating factor in our case, however, is quite simply that the controversy with one neighbour and the dispute with the other, are not confined to sea-space, but also encompass territorial issues. Where the west is concerned too, there are other possible constraints on how exactly we might proceed, Barbados's challenge to the 1990 Maritime Delimitation Treaty notwithstanding.
For more than a decade we have floated along, without any clearly delineated approach to border policy, and without evolving the strategies and tactics, as well as the research and documentation capacity necessary to support that policy. The Barbados challenge, unexpected as it is, should serve as a wake-up call, letting us know yet again that we cannot afford to slumber.