Do It Yourself Continental Shelf Delimitation

by Julian Ku

France, Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom have jointly submitted a proposed delimitation of the continental shelf lying beyond the 200 mile limit of their coasts but abutting all four of these countries. This joint submission is made pursuant to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and essentially is a proposed joint settlement. (In contrast to the many disputes that have to be settled around the world between countries like Japan – China, or Barbados – Trinidad & Tobago).

A question for IR and IL scholars: If the four countries can reach a settlement on boundary disputes on their own, do they really need the UN Law of the Sea system to approve? They certainly seem to think they do, but the interesting question is why?

One Response

  1. First, the proposed delimitation will not be approved by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The Commission will make recommendations, the four states will then decide, and their decision will be final (Article 76 (8) UNCLOS).

    Secondly, this delimitation is not only a matter of contention between the four states (more on that later). It does not only cover the limits of the continental shelf as between the four states (principally, the boundaries to the North and South, I assume), but also the extent of the continental shelf as opposed to the deep sea seabed (e.g., the boundaries to the West). Accordingly, all states have some interest in the delimitation, due to the exclusive rights of the coastal state over the declared continental shelf area (see Article 77 UNCLOS on the concept of exclusive rights).

    That is why the coastal state(s) cannot, under the regime of the UNCLOS, make the determination alone. UNCLOS establishes a compromise between the interests of the coastal state(s) and the interests of all other states. The fact that other zones of exclusive rights are established by unilateral proclamations may be explained by reference to the fact that such zones are more easily delimited (consider Article 57 UNCLOS), and that the parts of the continental shelf governed by Article 76 (8) UNCLOS represent the furthest extension of coastal state rights allowed under the Convention.

    Coming back to the question of the dispute between the four states in this particular case, could it not be that there was in reality no dispute to speak of? This is no more than a (barely) educated guess, but considering that the Exclusive Economic Zone pertaining to the four states is administered by the European Community on account of the economic nature of the rights enjoyed there, it would seem that many of the rights over the continental shelf (Article 77 (1) UNCLOS) will meet the same fate, and that the delimitation as between the four states will therefore not amount to much (even assuming that there are any economically viable activities relating to these areas at present). Why have a big dispute over something that will, to most intents and purposes, be a shared commodity anyway?

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