UNITED NATIONS -- A rare inside look at the work of a secretive U.N. body with the power to grant new seabed territory to nations gives a glimpse of what is in store for Canadian and possibly U.S. government officials when they present data from their Arctic surveys, wrapping up this week.
Though the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf is small and the meetings normally closed, they are nonetheless tightly controlled affairs, thick with ritual and etiquette, as countries first introduce themselves and the new boundaries they have drawn up. Only later does the scientific and legal wrangling begin, which can either go smoothly or quite roughly as governments vigorously defend their claims.
On Friday, the commission, established under the Law of the Sea convention, concluded its latest round of meetings in which it began to review Japan's sweeping and partially disputed claim and also heard appeals from Fiji, Argentina, Ghana and others. During the two-week session, an E&E reporter was allowed to view one nation's presentation to the 21-member panel, the first public scrutiny of any commission meeting, when the New Zealand protectorate the Cook Islands became the first Pacific Island nation to stake out extended seabed territory.
Approval or rejection of the Cook Islands' claim, which covers a region north of the island chain known as the Manihiki Plateau, is also important, as it will be one of the first tests of the legalistic definition of "continental shelf." The plateau is not continental, geologically speaking, but the Cook Islands and other noncontinental countries have the burden of proving that, legally, it is.
The Law of the Sea "is based on geology, but it is also a series of compromises," said Alain Murphy, a seafloor geologist with GeoLimits Consulting. "It's written ambiguously so everyone can take what they want out of their interpretation of the convention."
Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, one of the largest international treaties ever construed, coastal states are afforded exclusive economic control to the waters and seabed stretching 200 nautical miles from the shores. But countries can extend their ocean bottom territory to 350 nautical miles, and sometimes beyond, if they can prove that the area is a natural prolongation of their dry landmass.
Thus far, 51 countries have submitted evidence to do just that, while 40 more have formally indicated their intentions to do so. A nod in favor by the commission gives government free rein to exploit potentially massive amounts of natural resources lying at or beneath the ocean floor. The joint U.S.-Canada exploration of the Arctic was launched explicitly for the two countries to prepare their own eventual submissions.
The recent presentation by even tiny Cook Islands gives an idea of what is in store, since large and small nations alike find themselves having to kowtow to the commission members as they work hard to express confidence in their claims and show the scientific evidence to back it up.
"The economy now almost entirely depends on tourism, but our plan is to diversify our economy," said Terepai Maoate, the Cook Islands' deputy prime minister, who traveled all the way from his remote and isolated homeland to New York to present his government's request for new territory. "We hope that one day we will have a joint venture to explore the possibilities or even to give [companies] licenses to explore, and then once that is found, we must have some benefit."
Making the pitch
On a quiet morning in the basement of the U.N. complex late last month, Maoate and his six-man delegation were ushered into a conference room, where the presentation leaders sat before the international compilation of oceanographers and seabed geologists. Members of the delegation was still busy preparing their materials and reviewing each others' notes just moments before they were called in.
After a few introductory remarks and a formal opening of the meeting by the commission chair, who mostly read from a prepared script, the Cook Islands team was invited to begin.
Most countries complement their presentations with a PowerPoint slide show, and the Cook Islands was no different in this regard. But mindful of his nation's lowly stature in the global realm, Maoate chose to begin with a lesson on his nation's geographic location, history and culture.
Then other government ministers who were present gave a review of what they believed to be the firm legal and scientific basis for claiming the northern stretches of the Manihiki Plateau as their own. Maps were shown to demonstrate the geographic contours of the region in the hope of proving to commissioners that, although not part of an actual continental shelf, the extension did fit the legal definitions nations agreed to in 1982 for the Law of the Sea.
The delegation seemed to take pains not to make any slips or slights that could tarnish it in the eyes of any commissioners. The members defended their claim for an hour. Then, with no questions asked, they were swiftly but politely ushered out of the room so commissioners could deliberate in secret and hear the next government's claims.
With dozens of pending claims before it, the commission has become swamped with work in just the past year, and at the current pace, it could take decades for it to finish reviewing all claims.
The Cook Islands team was especially cautious, commission members said, because of the challenge it has in proving its legal rights to exploit the area in question.
The Manihiki Plateau is "in terms of the rock composition almost indistinguishable from the deep ocean floor next to them, so it gets complicated," admitted GeoLimits' Murphy, who has done work on several other national claims besides the one he came to defend. "We put a good case together, and I think we've demonstrated it quite well, but that is technically quite a challenge. It's not a straightforward submission in that sense."
The small Pacific Island state approached the sensitive task humbly, but other states contest their land grabs with varying levels of effort. Experts say many national presentations involve delegations smaller than even the Cook Islands', while other states, most famously Australia, fill the room with a team of lawyers, a clear signal that a nation is prepared to fight for every inch of seabed claimed.
To help somewhat bolster its own claim, the Cook Islands is preparing legislation on how the area is to be opened up to economic activity, should the commission ultimately approve the claim. The entire process could take several years, but officials with the island state said they want to prepare well ahead of time to make sure their newly won seabed is governed properly.
"The legislation is very important to cover our resources in that part," Maoate said. "We heard some stories from other countries, and they're telling us, 'You better be careful who does the drafting of your legislation,' so we're really careful with that already."
The Cook Islands' government also insists that an appropriate concern for the environment will be incorporated in the legislation. Environmental protections are glaringly absent with most of the provisions in the Law of the Sea, including the rules for winning control of extended continental shelf, and experts admit that is a worrying problem as states scramble to extract new wealth from the oceans.
"It is a source of concern, particularly with regard to the high seas," said Joshua Brien, a legal expert with the Commonwealth Secretariat who is advising several nations on their seabed claims. "The concept of freedom of the high seas remains in place, which has implications for the behavior of distant-water fishing nations ... who have opposed controls on fishing activity."