Rich nations helping former colonies with seabed claims

UNITED NATIONS -- Developing countries trying to claim new undersea territory via a U.N. commission are getting assistance from former colonial overlords or other wealthier nations.

The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) -- 21 geographers and hydrographers drawn from governments and the petroleum industry -- has seen its workload double since late last year, with new seabed claims arriving almost every week -- with most applications coming from developing countries.

Most active in aiding Third World bids is the Commonwealth, a 60-year-old voluntary association established by the United Kingdom as a successor to the British Empire. The Commonwealth Secretariat in London has so far helped Mauritius, Seychelles, the Cook Islands and Barbados make territorial claims. It has also helped Ghana, Kenya, Tonga and the Solomon Islands.

Joshua Brien, the secretariat's specialist in the Law of the Sea, which established the CLCS, is credited with helping developing states prepare their U.N. applications. The Commonwealth is also helping pay for technically complicated undersea mapping and sampling needed to prove the validity of seabed claims through a trust fund financed mostly by the United Kingdom.

"The preparation of submission is a significant undertaking that involves a consideration of complex legal and scientific issues," Brien said at a recent ceremony celebrating the joint submission of Mauritius and Seychelles.


Although some assume that the Commonwealth office and other richer states have secured concessions for their companies to gain access to resources in developing countries' newly claimed territories in return for their claim assistance, Law of the Sea experts caution that such assistance might have no strings attached.

"In some instances, the assistance will be provided as form of development assistance -- i.e., partly out of benevolence -- though of course even foreign aid is sometimes 'tied,'" said Michael Byers, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia. "And even if it isn't explicitly tied, there are personal connections and unspoken expectations that often smooth the way."

For its part, the Commonwealth office boasts that its assistance is helping poorer governments "establish a secure legal basis for the development of potentially lucrative natural and living resources of the seabed including oil, gas and mineral resources, as well as shellfish and other marine genetic resources."

Though the submissions are made possible partly by the Commonwealth's trust found, the United Kingdom government says it has had no direct role in supporting nations' claims. Other support from the United Kingdom's National Oceanography Centre to Barbados and Yemen was arranged by a private agreement between the parties and did not involve the U.K. government directly, a government representative said.

Likewise, the Netherlands is linked to a recent claim by Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America. The Netherlands Law of the Sea Institute helped assemble that application, which covers an area believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves. Netherlands government officials have not responded to a request for information on how that survey was financed.

France is also believed to be lending support to some of its former colonies, though thus far the French have been focused on mapping the outer continental shelves of overseas territories still under its control. A claim on seafloor near France's North American islands, St. Pierre and Miquelon, is expected to arrive in New York soon.

India's fingerprints are all over Burma's claim to outer continental shelf. Two Indian government agencies helped put the claim together, and Burmese officials leaned on two Indian experts for technical and legal advice, one a current CLCS member and the other a former member.

Independent assistance

Other developed states with almost no colonial baggage are also engaged, with no obvious future benefits for their nations' companies.

German authorities, for instance, have chipped in with advice to Uruguay and Ghana. Karl Hinz, a former member of the CLCS, has so far advised five governments, though he is not affiliated with the German government.

Developing states can also draw upon independent sources of financing, through a separate U.N. trust fund established in 2000 and designed explicitly for continental shelf exploration.

The CLCS workload continues to pile up, though commission members are still working through claims submitted two years ago.

Four new submissions arrived this week.

Iceland and Denmark have separately filed claims near the Danish-held Faroe Islands. Ghana's claim was filed Tuesday, and Pakistan's arrived yesterday.

All told, about 30 separate submissions are on file here, but work on only seven is complete. Reviews of national claims can often take two years or more.

Commission members have been appealing to Law of the Sea countries for more financial support to set up a permanent presence in New York so they can review all the claims on a full-time basis.

Commission members currently draw salaries from their respective governments or companies, but only if agencies and firms agree to keep them on payroll. CLCS members gather in New York about four times a year and do much of their work from home.

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