The boundary with Suriname: The draft treaty

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The proposal made by the Dutch Government in 1929 for a boundary treaty was taken up by the British, and negotiations began shortly after. On the question of sovereignty over the New River Triangle the British position was clear. The statements that were made in the Dutch Parliament during the 1920s on behalf of the Netherlands Government had conceded that Britain had been exercising acts of sovereignty over the area. They had also acknowledged that "it would be difficult to speak of the existence of a dispute" over the Kutari as the line of the boundary in the upper reaches of the Corentyne.

By 1930 it was indisputable that the New River Triangle should be formally recognised as forming part of British Guiana - recognition which was in fact later given by the Netherlands Government in connection with the fixing of the tri-junction point. Accordingly, on August 4, 1930, the Dutch Government informed the British Foreign Office that they were willing to sign such a Treaty and proposed the following delimitation of the frontier to be included: "The frontier between Surinam and British Guiana is formed by the left bank of the Corentyne and the Cutari up to its source, which rivers are Netherland territory."

In their reply to this on February 6, 1932, the British Government stated its pleasure to learn that the Dutch Government was prepared "to recognise the left banks of the Corentyne and Kutari Rivers as forming the boundary, provided that His Majesty's Government recognise the rivers themselves as belonging to the Netherlands Government."

Sovereignty of the Corentyne River

In the agreement which was made between the two Governors, Van Battenburg and Frederici in the nineteenth century, it was specifically provided not only that the territory west of the Corentyne River be regarded as British territory but also that the islands in the river should be regarded as belonging to Suriname. Nothing was said about the sovereignty of the river as this was not the particular question occupying the minds of the Governors. They envisaged that a formal agreement would be made by the competent metropolitan authorities for the purpose of settling the boundaries between the two colonies. Nevertheless, in the 1930s the Dutch sought to claim on the basis of this Agreement that the boundary between Suriname and British Guiana lay along the western bank of the Corentyne River.

The situation which the Dutch thereby sought to create was not only unusual in international law and practice but contrary to the understanding of both parties before the 1930s when both sides agreed that the boundary lay along the mid-line of the river.

Indeed in February 1913, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies in a despatch to the Governor of British Guiana stated: ". . . .Generally speaking the Corentyne is the boundary of British Guiana on the Dutch side with the usual attributes of a river boundary, namely, that the line of mid-stream is to be taken as the boundary from the source downwards."

A similar view on the Dutch side was reflected by the statement of the Netherlands Minister for Foreign Affairs who, also in February 1913, declared in the Dutch Parliament that the boundary was formed by the Corentyne and the Kutari-Curuni, and added: ". . . to this water course the ordinary rules of international law obtaining in respect of joint boundary rivers are wholly applicable".

In keeping with the thinking of both sides, the maps published in British Guiana in 1913 and in 1924 showed the boundary between the two colonies along the thalweg (deepest channel) of the Corentyne and Kutari rivers and bore the following note: "The Eastern boundary of the Colony is the middle of the deepest channel (thalweg) of the river Courantyne and when an Island is passed the middle of the deepest channel (thalweg) between the island and the West Bank of the River."

This was the accepted position up to 1929. The position then was that the Dutch had clearly recognised the title of the British not only to the New River Triangle, but also to a frontier on the mid-line of the Corentyne-Kutari.

Around this period, there were reports that oil had been discovered in the region around the mouth of the Corentyne River. It was then that the Dutch proposed that the boundary should be settled by treaty and, in the context of that proposal, they asserted that the boundary should lie not along the Kutari but along the New River, and that its precise position should be not along the thalweg but along the left bank of the Corentyne.

In the resulting negotiations they abandoned this unsupportable claim to the New River as the southern-most line of the boundary. At the same time, the British expressed their willingness, provided that existing British rights of user of the river were safeguarded, to accept a boundary on the left bank of the river. This formed the consensus on which the final draft of the Boundary Treaty was prepared in the 1930s - a treaty which was all but signed when the Second World War intervened. Although agreement had been reached, the actual signing was postponed and, in fact, it never took place.