The maritime boundary with Suriname

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In 1927 the Dutch Government proposed to the British Government the holding of discussions on a treaty to mark the maritime boundary between Guyana and Suriname. The discussions commenced in 1931, but following the custom of the time the first draft of the treaty was forwarded by the United Kingdom to the Netherlands in 1935. The Dutch in their original draft of 1931 proposed a 28-degree line, but this was changed to 10 degrees in 1936. Subsequent drafts were submitted by the two sides up to 1939 when work on the final draft of the treaty was interrupted by the outbreak of the war in Europe.

Based on international norms, Guyana's maritime boundary currently follows a line of 33 degrees east of true north which confirms with the principle of equidistance established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea when there is no agreed maritime boundary. In contrast, Suriname adheres to the line 10 degrees east of true north, that is, west of the Guyana line, proposed by the draft treaty which was prepared in 1939.

The principle of equidistance in the continental shelf attracted international attention since the 1950s. The Convention on the Continental Shelf reached in Geneva in April 1958 established in Article 6(2) that when the continental shelf is adjacent to the territories of two states, and in the absence of agreement, the boundary should be determined by the application of the principle of equidistance from the nearest points of the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea of each state is measured. (This principle is also enshrined in the Convention on the Law of the Sea which became open for signature from December 1982). Where there is no agreement or where there has been failure to reach agreement, the equidistance principle becomes automatically applicable unless one side can prove there is historic title or other special circumstance. In the case of the continental shelf, there is no proviso for historic title, for the simple reason that the concept of continental shelf is relatively new as it developed after World War II.

After the end of World War II, negotiations resumed in 1949 on the basis of another draft treaty which was almost identical with the first draft of 1939. This second draft was then revised to produce a third draft which was divided into three parts to define the agreed principle of equidistance.

On 6 August 1958, at the request of Suriname, the Dutch Government proposed that the division of the territorial seas and continental shelf should be defined in accordance with this principle of equidistance. The British accepted this proposal.

Part Two (of the draft), containing two articles (VII and VIII), provided the definition of the dividing line between the territorial seas and contiguous zone as being formed by "the prolongation seawards of the line drawn on a bearing of 010 degrees referred to in article 1(2) to a distance of 6 miles from the seaward of the concrete marks referred to, (that is, those outside No. 61 Village) thence on a bearing of 033 degrees for a distance of 35 miles, thence on a bearing of 038 degrees for a distance of 28 miles, thence on a bearing of 028 degrees to the point of intersection with the edge of the continental shelves as defined by international law."

The British were prepared to concede the 10-degree line (to a distance of 6 miles) so far as the territorial sea was concerned as it was not considered to represent the median line.

This draft, the third, was forwarded to the Netherlands in October 1961. In June 1962, the Netherlands submitted a counter draft comprising a package which included the first official claims to the New River Triangle and located the boundary in the Corentyne in the thalweg rather than on the left bank as in the first draft. The Netherlands also proposed an alternative method of dividing the territorial waters and continental shelf by prolonging the 10-degree line seawards along the end of the thalweg, rather than the British 33-degree line which was slightly eastward. These Dutch proposals were rejected in totality by the British.

Significantly, this counter position of 1962, including a new claim to Guyana's territory, coincided with the reopening by Venezuela of its claim to the Essequibo at the United Nations in February 1962 and at a time of considerable domestic upheaval in British Guiana.

In 1965, the British Government after consultation with the British Guiana Government proposed a new draft restating the 1961 British draft and suggested a sea boundary following the median line from the left bank of the Corentyne River drawn according to the equidistance principle. This proposal elicited no response from the Dutch.

On 3 February 1966, a fortnight prior to the convening in Geneva of the critical meeting on the Guyana-Venezuela boundary, the Netherlands forwarded a substantial note rejecting the third draft treaty (which it had drawn up) and, among other things, reverted to the 10-degree maritime line as the sea boundary.

Since the 10-degree line of the first draft was related to the direction of the left bank of the Corentyne, and not to any median rule, that line would be open to negotiation as it would lose whatever validity was accorded if the frontier were to be shifted to the thalweg and the median line seaward commenced from that point.

After independence, the Guyana Government delivered a modified draft treaty in 1971 following the lines of the 1965 British draft. This drew no response from the Dutch Government. Suriname itself made no proposal for a settlement of the issue since that date or especially since that country became independent in 1975.