Photo: Rashed Shumon

Ashfaqur Rahman

Bangladesh received one of the best news in many decades on March 14, 2012. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) located in Hamburg, Germany, gave its judgment on the dispute with Myanmar on the delimitation of our maritime boundary. It awarded us what we bargained for and more. It was indeed a great victory for Bangladesh. The credit goes particularly to this government, which initiated the move to seek international arbitration to resolve the dispute. The credit also goes to a select few in our Ministry of Foreign Affairs who used their professionalism to pursue the case with single-minded dedication and a sensible strategy.

In the landmark judgment, ITLOS awarded Bangladesh a 200 miles exclusive zone following the concave nature of our coast in the Bay of Bengal, with full territorial and economic rights. It also gave us a substantial share of the outer continental shelf beyond 200 miles. The Tribunal also awarded a full 12 mile territorial sea (TS) around St Martins Island in Cox's Bazaar district, trashing Myanmar's assertion that Bangladesh should get only 6 miles of the territorial sea there.

The Tribunal based this historic ruling on the principle of equity which Bangladesh had been fighting for in the last 38 years, rather than on the principle of equidistance. ITLOS took note of the configuration of our coast, its length, the large population of our country, the nature of dependency of the people as well as our Gross National Product among other factors. Myanmar had, however, argued that the maritime boundary should be drawn simply on the principle of geometric equidistance from their coast.

If this was to happen, then the maritime boundary so determined would have cut directly into Bangladesh's coastline and truncated its maritime jurisdiction. With India also arguing in favour of the principle of equidistance to our west, we would have got a 130 mile wide outlet to navigate to the high sea. We would also be denied our right to the living and the non-living resources in this huge swathe of maritime territory. Indeed, hostile powers could have locked Bangladesh in this virtual lagoon so created, circumscribing our movement from the close confines of our coast.

The 151 page judgment was passed with 21 judges voting in favour with only one judge differing. The decision given is now final and there is no appeal.

By this award, we have got 111,000 square kilometers area in the Bay of Bengal (almost the same size of Bangladesh) with all the resources there and whatever resources we may discover in that area in the future.

The award has many short, medium and long term implications for Bangladesh. In the short term, we can now start to drill again for oil and gas in our 200 mile economic zone, as the area is no more disputed. We can start to allocate blocks to international companies for exploration. We also now have exclusive right over the fish resources and other marine life in this area. We can begin to scientifically exploit them for benefit of our people. Safe passage for ships from all over the world is now guaranteed.

In the medium term, among other things, it could have an effect on the maritime dispute we still have with India. India has been insisting, like Myanmar, on the principle of equidistance instead of equity in demarcating the maritime border with us. Since we have not been able to resolve the matter amicably we have invoked "Annex VII" under Article 3 of the dispute resolution clause of the 1982 UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. A five member arbitral tribunal (three members from the ITLOS who have already ruled in our favour and one ad-hoc member each from Bangladesh and India) will sit in the Hague to decide on the issue. They will give their ruling by 2014.

The settlement with Myanmar, based on the principle of equity may now discourage India from insisting on the principle of equidistance. But we would have to wait and see. India may in the meantime proffer other arguments to get round this established principle in the Bay of Bengal. But we could be hopeful for a decision in our favour.

The long run implication of the ITLOS award may be somewhat heart warming for the people of Bangladesh. As technology improves and cost reduces, we could be in a position to harness alternative energy from the sea waves and from the sea wind on a massive scale. This will definitely add to our repertoire of the available sources of energy. We would also be able to mine the sea bed in our economic zone for valuable minerals. We would be able to farm the sea too for marine life and harvest it for our growing population. A whole new generation of Bangladeshis can now grow up consuming the rich proteins that can be sourced from the sea. In future, our people would not remain mal-nourished as they are at present.

But what do we require to do now to protect and promote the huge resource that has been made available to us because of this award?

Our navy needs to be upgraded and modernised post haste. We cannot allow international poachers to come into our exclusive economic zone and steal our fish and marine life. We also cannot allow international pirates to roost here. A quick and cheap way to boost our navy is to acquire submarines to protect our sea lanes and our sea resources. Naval platforms where sea planes and helicopters can operate from must be acquired. We also need detailed survey of the Bay. For this we should procure a multi-purpose survey vessel.

Next, we must open marine research institutes in Bangladesh. They will not only be able to find and analyse new and unknown species of plants and marine life, but will also help their cultivation and harvesting. Our universities should open marine studies and train persons who will be knowledgeable and skilled in these areas. Intensive research programmes must be introduced in our higher seats of learning.

Last but not the least, we may consider setting up a Bay of Bengal maritime commission under the aegis of the Ministry of Defense to provide our government policy options to protect and promote our maritime resources. It would primarily introduce the best practices prevailing in various maritime countries and regulate the exploitation of the resources. The commission would have experts and policy planners and help to convert our economic zone into a resource bowl for Bangladesh.

Let us not forget that Bangladesh is only one of the many littoral states along the Bay of Bengal. We must therefore cooperate with the other states and try to jointly develop the resources in the Bay.

A wise man had once said: "Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been." Till last week Bangladesh had great worries over the Bay of Bengal. We still have anxiety over what the result will be of the arbitration on the maritime boundary with India.

But this week, the clouds circling over our dispute with Myanmar have faded. The Bay now holds promise for us. Let us therefore recall the past when the Bay had fed us and eased our travels. Let us now think what more it can give us in the future. Let the wrinkles now disappear and the smiles again appear.

The writer is a former Ambassador and is a regular commentator on contemporary issues.

This article was first published on March 18, 2012 in The Daily Star.

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