Maritime border disputes are, like dry wells, an expected outcome when countries with natural resources and common maritime boundaries decide to pursue exploration activities.
In most of the cases, maritime border disputes are not resolved within a short period of time. They often take different forms ranging from discussions , negotiations, and litigations sometimes ending in arbitrations. Russia and Norway for example, eventually resolved their arctic border dispute after 40 years of negotiations. They agreed to sign a treaty that will allow them to jointly explore for oil and gas in the arctic region. It is noteworthy that both countries are signatories to the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea-UNCLOS (both signed in 1982). The UNCLOS’s provisions cover several issues related to international maritime borders such as setting limits, navigation, transit regimes, exclusive economic zones, exploitation of natural resources, and settlement of disputes. 157 countries have so far signed the UNCLOS. Within the East Mediterranean countries, Israel, Syria and Turkey remain among the countries that have not yet signed the UNCLOS.
In early 2000, when the Lebanese State, re-launched serious discussions around the offshore exploration of the country’s natural resources , delineating Lebanon’s maritime borders was on the agenda. While we will not delve into the details of how the Lebanese State determined the coordinates of its maritime borders are, It is important however, to highlight some of the practices pursued by the Lebanese State during the course of determining its maritime boundaries:
It is quite normal for a country during the stage of achieving its final delineation coordinates including those for its exclusive economic zone to propose, adjust, or alter these coordinates. This practice was made quite evident by Mr. John Brown in a study he developed for UKHO in 2011 where he argues that there should be more than one coordinate per maritime border, which he further supports with technical and legal arguments based on past practices, UNCLOS articles, as well as the International Court of Justice precedents.
In 2014, the Lebanese Armed Forces established Lebanon’s first Hydrographic division. The capacity and capability of this division was gradually built so that it can meaningfully and reliably lead on the delimitation process of Lebanon’s maritime borders.
The issuing of the Lebanese government’s decree (#6433) on 2011? determines Lebanon’s maritime coordinates. The decree includes an article (3) that allows for adjustment of these coordinates on a need-to basis. Adjustment of articles based on continued hydrographic research is not an uncommon thing. Many countries amend their maritime borders decrees as they progress towards delimitation of their borders with adjacent countries. One example of such an amendment is Norway’s amendment of its Royal Decree of 14 June, 2002, as amended by Crown Prince Regent’s Decree of 10 October 2003.
When the UKHO study was completed, it was neither published nor publicly discussed. Between the Parliamentary Committee of Energy and Public Works and the Council of Ministers, the study was never discussed officially and found its way only to the State’s filing cabinets.
No inclusive, public discussions or consultations were held amongst the various stakeholders (parliament, council of ministers, Lebanese army, experts, civil society) to agree on the proposed maritime border coordinates that were included in Decree 6433. In fact, a study completed by Operations Navy Staff Colonel Mazen Basbous in 2013 indicated that the decree 6433 needs to be amended to include adjusted boundary coordinates . This was neither formally considered formally nor put up for discussion. The study presented technical and legal evidence supporting an additional 1430 KM2 to be added to Lebanon’s southern maritime boundaries.
Despite ample scientific evidence calling for the adjustment of decree 6433, there was no political or state consensus to support the adjustment call.
Between 2002 (the year when UKHO was tasked to develop the hydrographic study) and January 2021, there had been virtually no formal discussions or public consultations with experts and issue-based organizations around Lebanon’s maritime boundary delineation . The greater public, experts, academia, and NGOs began learning about these issues very recently (from January 2021 onwards). This was driven by a targeted campaign by the negotiating team to lobby and push for the adjustment of decree 6433. This one-time transparency measure came at a time when the Lebanese people are experiencing an epic economic, financial, as well as a social collapse.
From a governance perspective, and based on the steps taken by the Lebanese State to manage the maritime boundary delineation, a number of shortcomings have added to the complexity of this matter:
Transparency: The absence of transparency in dealing with this critical delineation portfolio has aggravated the situation and further eroded the level of trust between the different stakeholders needed to reach a strong position. This was clearly reflected through the absence of a unified national support offered to the negotiating team during the critical times of actual negotiations. Transparency could have consolidated support and given more strength the team’s claims at the negotiating table.
Participatory and inclusive approach: No meaningful participatory or inclusive approach was adopted especially prior to January 2021. All discussions were held either unilaterally or bilaterally at best. The different political parties represented in either the parliament or the council of ministers did not have the knowledge , governance maturity, will or intention to approach this critical portfolio in an inclusive holistic manner.
Public consultations: Ensuring that all stakeholders are publically and systematically consulted on issues of a national strategic magnitude is paramount and provides for a smoother approach for the resolution of disputes that may arise when dealing with maritime border delineation . Lack of legislative processes ensuring public consultations allowed for experts’ opinions such as those of Najib Masih, a renowned-Switzerland-based maritime affairs expert, and others not to be acknowledged or considered until June 2020, 9 years after the ratification of decree 6433 and 3 months prior to the indirect negotiations launched between Lebanon and Enemy Israel with US mediation.
Moving forward, we all acknowledge that the time is critical and that actions need to be taken by the Lebanese State if we are to protect and maximize Lebanon’s claims to its maritime boundary rights. Clearly, there are several issues that must be resolved starting with rallying consensus around the adjustment of decree 6433. Unfortunately, it is quite evident that no consensus has been reached . Application of the basic principles of governance must be urgently applied.
Application of the basic principles of governance must be applied urgently. Civil society organizations demand that a national dialogue be held by all stakeholders to discuss all strategic options related to the issue of Lebanon’s maritime boundary delineation . The assembly needs to be inclusive, participatory and transparent with a clear legal commitment made by the State to adopt all resulting agreements.
The time to act is now, if we are indeed to salvage Lebanon’s maritime rights and its natural resources.
Image Source: The Daily Start