exclusive economic zone

When Is an Island Not An Island? Caribbean Maritime Disputes

caribbean maritime disputes map

caribbean maritime disputes mapaves island caribbeanMatters of basic geographical definition can be extremely important in international disputes and negotiations, especially when it comes to maritime claims. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, any country can claim a 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around every island that it controls, usually splitting the differences with the EEZs of other countries that have territories, insular or otherwise, within those limits. But what exactly constitutes an island? How large does it have to be? The Convention on the Law of the Sea is rather vague on this score. It defines an island clearly enough as “a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide,” but it does not specify a minimum size. Two sections later, certain “naturally formed areas of land, surrounded by water, which remain above water at high tide,” are removed from the category: “rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone.”

The definitions difficulties here are profound. A mere clump of stone barely extending above the high-tide line obviously does not qualify as an island, but what about a larger rocky mass that could conceivably “sustain human habitation?” What about a non-rocky island too small, too arid, or too cold to sustain human habitation under normal conditions? What if those conditions were modified by human engineering? Such questions are not answered, leading to inherent ambiguity and numerous diplomatic disagreements.

Consider Aves Island, a speck of sand in the central Caribbean, 1,230 feet (375 meters) by 160 feet (50 meters), that supports a few scrubby bushes. That, at any rate, is the current extent of the island; storm surges occasionally submerge the entire islet, changing its size and rearranging its topography. Venezuela currently controls Aves, and claims that it is an island, potentially giving it a sizable extension of its EEZ in the central Caribbean Sea. Since 1978, Venezuela has maintained a permanently staffed scientific station on Aves built on large pilings and protected by a small naval contingent. As a result, the island might be said to sustain human habitation, but it certainly does not do so on the basis of its own resources.

The Venezuelan position has been challenged by several parties. The United Nations considers Aves a mere rock, denying Venezuela an EEZ in the vicinity. Until recently, Dominica also claimed Aves, with support from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). In 2005, a group of eastern Caribbean countries denounced the Venezuelan claim to the waters around Aves. Venezuela’s vice president José Vicente Rangel responding by asserting that, “Venezuela has been exercising sovereignty since about 1800. I think that the empire’s long arm is involved in this mobilization around Aves Island.” (“The empire,” in Venezuelan diplomatic code, refers to the United States.)

Rangel’s historical assertion is questionable, as American guano collectors occupied the island periodically in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The United States, however, subsequently dropped all claims to the islet, and in 1978 acknowledged Venezuelan control over both Aves and its marine environs, as specified in the United States-Venezuela Maritime Boundary Treaty. The treaty sets the maritime division between the two countries halfway between Aves and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Venezuelan position was further solidified in 2006 when Dominica dropped its claims. Dominica, not coincidently, soon afterward joined the ALBA alliance, and as such now receives Venezuelan subsidies. Venezuela’s position, however, is complicated by the fact that it has not signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As such, its claims to an exclusive economic zone around Aves have not been formalized. (The United States has signed the convention, but has never ratified it; the U.S. does, however, honor “almost all the provisions of the treaty.”)

Aves Island – or non-rocky rock, as the case may be – is not the only site of a territorial dispute in the Caribbean. Navassa Island, between Haiti and Jamaica, is occupied by the United States but constitutionally claimed by Haiti. Covering two square miles (5.2 square kilometers), it is a veritable giant compared to Aves. Navassa is currently administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a National Wildlife Refuge. A more complex dispute involves a number of tiny islets and sand bars in the western Caribbean. An area known as Serranilla Bank is currently controlled by Colombia but claimed by Honduras, Nicaragua, and the United States. Sixty-three miles (110 kilometers) to the east, the sand specks known as Bajo Nuevo Bank are also controlled by Colombia, but are claimed by Jamaica, Nicaragua and the United States. Nicaragua also claims the vastly larger and well-inhabited – and historically English-speaking – Colombian archipelago of San Andrés and Providencia. In 2007, the International Court of Justice recognized “the full sovereignty of Colombia over the islands of San Andrés [and] Providencia…, but left open the question about the demarcation of the maritime boundary… .”

A number of additional maritime boundaries remain in contention across the Caribbean. On February 24, 2011, for example, the Minister of Tourism and International Transport of St. Kitts and Nevis, “informed the Cabinet that [the country] has overlapping or disputed maritime boundaries with the Netherlands Antilles (St. Eustatius), Venezuela, The French Antilles (St. Barthelemy), Antigua and Barbuda, and Montserrat (effectively, the United Kingdom).” When it comes to sea-space dotted with tiny islands, geopolitical boundaries can be extraordinarily difficult to establish.

St. Kitts and Nevis may have an especially hard time demarcating a firm maritime border with “the Netherlands Antilles,” seeing as a geopolitical entity of that name no longer exists, as tomorrow’s post will examine.

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The Basques of Saint Pierre and Miquelon

The world’s most unlikely center of Basque culture is probably Saint Pierre and Miquelon, a windswept group of islands covering 93 square miles (242 square kilometers) located twelve miles (19 kilometers) off the shore of Newfoundland. The Basque presence on the islands is of long standing, dating back to the first European exploitation of the cod fisheries of the Grand Banks in the 1400s; today, an estimated thirty percent of the archipelago’s 7,000 people are of Basque origin. Every August, Saint Pierre and Miquelon holds a Basque festival. This year’s event was evidently a success, featuring music, dancing, shows of strength, and the Basque national game of eusko pilota. Headlining the show was the musical group Gau-Aïnarak, from Jatxou in the Northern Basque Country of southwestern France.

It is fitting that the musical entertainment at this year’s fete came from the French Basque region, as Saint Pierre and Miquelon is a possession of France. Technically a Territorial Collectivity, the archipelago is a remnant of France’s one-time North American empire. When it lost its mainland holdings after the Seven-Year War in 1763, France was allowed to regain possession of the islands, which it had ceded to Britain in 1713. The return of Saint Pierre and Miquelon was not an insignificant consolation, since it served as a base for the Grand Banks fishery, then the richest in the world. The archipelago passed back and forth between Britain and France during the Napoleonic period, but since 1815 it has remained securely in French hands. World War II saw some drama. The local governor remained loyal to the fascist Vichy regime, leading Canada to threaten action. Instead, Charles De Gaulle took the islands by force. As De Gaulle had not informed the American government of his impending micro-invasion, Franklin Roosevelt was not pleased, contributing to his distrust of the Free French leader.

The fisheries of the Grand Banks once bought prosperity to Saint Pierre and Miquelon. In the 1920s, alcohol smuggling to the United States also proved lucrative. With the end of prohibition and, more recently, the depletion of cod stocks, the economy of Saint Pierre and Miquelon has languished. Per capita GDP in 2001 was a mere $7,000, necessitating heavy French subsidies. France hopes that tourism will boost the economy, but prospects seem dim. Offshore oil drilling is another distant possibility. As shown on the accompanying map, the territory has an oddly shaped exclusive economic zone of maritime territory. France had claimed a much larger slice of sea-space, but international arbitration in 1992 awarded most of the contested area to Canada.

The physical geography of Saint Pierre and Miquelon is also noteworthy. As the map above hints, the larger island of Miquelon was originally three separate islets. In the 1700s, a sand isthmus emerged naturally between the two larger chunks of land, which has subsequently been reinforced through engineering projects. The waters around the islands are perilous, noted for hundreds of shipwrecks. Fishermen refer to the channel separating St. Pierre from Miquelon as “the Mouth of Hell.”

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