It was reported in the local news media on October 7, 2018 that Sri Lanka will host a regional conference on the future of the Indian Ocean on October 11, 2018, which is expected to bring together countries that surround the this great body of water where Sri Lanka holds a pivotal location.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe in an article published in Sunday Observer on October 7, 2018 states that the efforts of realizing the potential of the Indian Ocean “will define the destiny of the planet in the 21 century” as the main issue.
The second is that “smaller states such as Sri Lanka, with lack of vast military power, an essential element to maximizing risks, is to actively support the international rule-based order. It was also stated that Lee Kuan Yew took this approach to bring Singapore into a stable and prosperous hub in the ASEAN region.
The third focus is on international rules-based order like freedom of navigation, which is evolved from common understanding of challenges and solutions in the region vis-a-vis the world.
In my article I hope to focus on the extent of the Indian Ocean and its history since 5000 BCE and on the international order to the rights and obligations of littoral states under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), where Sri Lanka played a significant role in its formulation and ratification in 1994.
I would like to extensively quote a publication titled ‘The Indian Ocean’ by Michael Pearson, Emeritus Professor of New South Wales, Australia. This publication in 2003 contains eight chapters related to the Indian Ocean namely (a) deep structure (b) humans and the sea (c) the beginning of the ocean (d) Muslims in the Indian Ocean (e) Europeans in the Indian Ocean world (f) the early modern Indian Ocean world (g) Britain and the ocean and (h) history of the Ocean.
Extent of Indian Ocean
The Indian Ocean going down to Antarctica covers an extent of 68,536,000 square kilometres as compared to Baltic 414,000 square kilometres, the North Sea 520,000 square kilometres and the Mediterranean 2,516,000 square kilometres and is over 20 times bigger than the three above seas combined. The Indian Ocean covers 27 percent of the maritime space of the world and also covers 14 percent of global space.
UNCLOS and Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka played a significant role in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which established a comprehensive regime that dealt with all matters related to the problems of ocean space. Some highlights are the establishment of a comprehensive framework for regulation of ocean space and the first six parts of the UNCLOS deal with national jurisdiction.
The General Assembly of the UN Declaration of Principles -Resolution 2749 (xxv) established the Common Heritage of Mankind that comprises the area of the seabed and ocean floor beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.
Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United Nations Shirley Amarasinghe was elected as Chairman of the ‘Seabed Committee’, which was to study the ocean floor beyond national jurisdiction, should be declared ‘Common Heritage of Mankind”.
Before his untimely death in 1980, he successfully managed to influence the United Nations at the highest level during the Preparatory Commission on the UNCLOS and the Chairmanship was passed to Ambassador Tommy Koh of Singapore, who presided at the signing of the UNCLOS at Montego Bay, in December 1982.
Ambassador Amarasinghe was succeeded by Ambassador Hiran Jayewardene, who made an outstanding contribution to the work of the conference and feature article in the Island newspaper under “inner.gif” of May 13, 2007 is quoted as follows: “His study of the draft text of the convention convinced him that the provisions of Article 76, which established the limits of a state’s continental shelf beyond 200 miles from its baselines, treated Sri Lanka unfairly, by taking as its principal reference point, a specified thickness of the shelf’s potentially oil-bearing sedimentary rocks. Dr. Jayewardene convinced the other countries such as US and the Soviet Union but India insisted that such an exception made for Sri Lanka should be applied to India as well.”
The conference agreed that the exceptional method of delimiting the shelf in the Bay of Bengal could be used by both Sri Lanka and India. This led to the inclusion of Annex 11 to the Final Act titled ‘Statement of Understanding Concerning a Specific Method to be Used in Establishing Outer Limits of the Continental Margin’.
It was also reported that Sri Lanka and India should submit their claims for the extended shelf in the Bay of Bengal by 2007.
Present status of Delimitation of Continental Margin of Sri Lanka
All the untiring efforts by Sri Lanka to claim the extended continental margin was completely defeated by persons who had no knowledge of the issues involved and the untiring efforts by our ambassador, who was the prime mover in inclusion of the Annex 11 of the Final Act, were defeated.
I wrote three articles from 2008 to 2015, highlighting the delays in submitting to the United Nations Commission on the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) referenced below:
(a) Delimitation of the Continental Shelf of Sri Lanka - Financial Section Sunday Times September 7, 2008.
(b) DECOM Project Sri Lanka’s Case for the Continental Margin - Financial Section Sunday Times September 27, 2009.
(c) Present Status of the Delimitation of the Continental Margin Project and National Ocean Affairs Committee - Daily Mirror Business Page April 1, 2015.
In article (c) I made over 11 recommendations and highlighted that a committee should be appointed on the conduct of the Delimitation of the Continental Margin (DECOM) Project from 2001 and the expenditure incurred by the Government of Sri Lanka with foreign funding from NORAD, the Norwegian Aid Agency.
It must be stressed that the DECOM Project, which took over 10 years for completion from 1999 until its submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf on May 8, 2009 under Article 76 paragraph 8 of UNCLOS that refers to Annex 11 of the Final Act.
It must be further stated that nearly 10 years have passed after submission of Sri Lanka’s claim on the extended continental shelf and this delay is mainly due to the appointment of heads of delegations who were and still ignorant of how the UNCLOS was negotiated since 1968 under the preparatory commissions with the participation by more than 150 countries.
I have attempted to highlight the historical background of the Indian Ocean and its extent as compared with other oceans, which have significantly smaller ocean space. It is significant that Sri Lanka has a large ocean space of over 1,300,000 square kilometres (nearly half of the Mediterranean Sea) that could be claimed under the UNCLOS and compared to Sri Lanka’s land area of 65,500 square kilometres the ocean space is over 20 times the land area.
The Government of Sri Lanka should give the highest priority in reconstituting the Sri Lankan delegation to the United Nations Commission on Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) and formulate an effective strategy to claim our extended ocean space so that we will be able to explore and exploit the living and non-living resources in the waters as well as the sea bed for economic and social advancement of the country.
(Dulip Jayawardena, a retired Economic Affairs Officer United Nations ESCAP, can be contacted at email@example.com)