Monday, 22 August 2011

Philippines stands to increase continental shelf through Benham Rise claim

The Philippines may gain 13 million hectares of territory should the UN approve its government's claim of the Benham Rise, reports the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The Benham Rise is situated off the eastern coast of the Philippines and may be recognised, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as a part of its continental shelf in 2012. The Philippines is the only claimant to the Rise, a situation which represents a contrast to that off its western coast where title to the Spratly Islands remains disputed.
Given the seemingly straightforward nature of the claim, the government of the Philippines is keen to incorporate the Rise which, with its huge methane deposits, has the potential to make the Philippines a natural gas exporter. Should, under UNCLOS, Benham be determined to be a part of Philippines territory then there would be a legal basis for the government to negotiate exploration rights with private companies.
The Philippines claim was submitted to the UN under UNCLOS in 2009, and the Environment Secretary of the Philippines, Ramon Jesus Paje, has said that the UN intends to approve the claim in 2012.
Paje has said that the Philippines has only recently categorically defined the Benham Rise as attached to the continental shelf which, under UNCLOS, is the seabed and subsoil that extend beyond its 12 nautical mile territorial sea. Nevertheless, there is anticipation in the Philippines that the eventual incorporation of the Benham Rise will mark an important step towards energy self-sufficiency.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Continuing tension along the Israel-Lebanon borders

Lebanon has filed a complaint against Israel at the UN after a border incident on Monday (1 August) which involved an exchange of fire. An Israeli Defence Force (IDF) patrol is alleged to have entered Lebanese territory at Wazzani. Reports vary, but the extent of the incursion is put at a matter of metres (between 15 and 70).

Reports also vary as to the supposed sequence of events. Some sources claim that the presence of IDF soldiers on Lebanese territory prompted Lebanese forces to fire at them; others counter that Israeli forces were not on Lebanese territory but that they did return the fire of the Lebanese forces.

Neither side sustained any casualties during the incident. In its complaint Lebanon argues that the the Israeli incursion represented a violation of its sovereignty, a breach of international law and the Charter of the United Nations. Moreover, Lebanon argues that the incursion breached UN Security Council resolution 1701 which ended the month-long war of 2006 end extended the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) mandate.

Israel made its own complaint to the UN, on Tuesday (2 August), about shots fired (by a Lebanese soldier at an IDF patrol) from across the border. Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to the UN has argued that incidents such as this potentially threaten the ceasefire that currently holds between the two states; another similar event has allegedly taken place in the last two weeks.

This notwithstanding, the low-level conflict that characterises the formal ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon has been interpreted in news sources as indicative of comparative calm along the land border. The focus in recent weeks has been on the maritime border between the two states, and a disputed area of approximately 850 square kilometres which, potentially, is rich in oil and gas deposits.

Neither side is willing to modify its stance, the Lebanese claiming a maritime boundary that runs several kilometres to the south of the line approved by the Israeli cabinet on 10 July. International parties are pushing for a negotiated settlement to the dispute, but as the states are technically at war they will not negotiate. Compounding the problem is Lebanon's non-recognition of Israel. It has therefore proposed that the UN resolve the matter. The UN, for its part, says it cannot because UNIFIL holds no mandate to deal with maritime boundaries. Therefore, perhaps the most satisfactory course of action is for both parties to permit a mediation process to begin—face-to-face negotiations are, at best, unlikely and probably impossible—while the states explore for oil and gas outside of the disputed area. It has been argued that the continued uncertainty over the maritime boundaries will cause international investors to stay away from the Levantine Basin but, arguably, this is not clear cut. Energy companies are, for example, involved in exploration and exploitation activities in a number of disputed areas including the disputed waters off Morocco and Western Sahara.

Indeed, both parties are free to explore areas of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) that are undisputed. However, Lebanon, which perhaps has the stronger case in international law, has not yet begun any exploration of its own. Hezbollah plays an important role in the new Lebanese cabinet; its leader, Hassan Nazrallah, has warned Israel—which has carried out exploratory work—to stay away from Lebanon's offshore resources.

Sources: Channel News Asia, Daily Star (Lebanon), Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post

International reaction to violence on the Kosovo-Serbia border

After last week's clashes in northern Kosovo which left a Kosovan policeman dead and NATO/KFOR peacekeepers under fire, additional peacekeeping forces were sent to the region on Tuesday (2 August) to relieve those that had been involved since the start of the crisis. NATO has stressed that this does not represent a reaction to the escalation of the crisis which began when Kosovan police attempted to take over two border crossings, and ethnic Serbs subsequently attacked a border post on 28 July.

In addition, Kosovo has imposed a de facto trade embargo on Serbia. The timing, if not the nature, of this development is surprising for it has been three years since the Serbian government in Belgrade banned imports from Kosovo as a consequence of Pristina's unilateral declaration of independence.

The Belgrade government and the Serb minority in northern Kosovo have never recognised the independent government of Kosovo. On 31 July a declaration of the Serbian government criticised the actions of the authorities in Pristina. Since then, Belgrade has been sure to signal its commitment to the peaceful resolution of the present crisis through dialogue; President Tadic has stated that, in light of the recent history of the Balkans, that the preservation of regional stability is the priority.

Nonetheless, elements of the minority Serb population in northern Kosovo have perceived a provocation to violence in the activities of the Kosovan government. 60,000 Serbs live in the north; among this population there is little acceptance of the region's control by Pristina. Accordingly, the authorities there exercise little effective control in the north of the territory that is defined by their Republic's Constitution. With this, and an associated measure of pragmatism in mind, the international players that have recognised Kosovo's independence over the last three years have encouraged it to pursue an incremental strategy in this respect.

Nonetheless, recognising the more conciliatory and cooperative stance adopted by the present Belgrade government towards the international community, external actors have signalled their general disapproval of the Pristina's actions. The EU High Representative on foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, indicated the EU's disapproval, and the US State Department criticised Pristina for not coordinating its actions with the international community. At the UN, the Secretary-General called for restraint and dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina facilitated by the EU. China—the only power to abstain at the formulation of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999), which mandated the international presence in Serbia/Kosovo, and one which was highly critical of the NATO action in 1999—expressed its regret over the Pristina administration's activities which it blamed for the increasing tensions.

Internationally, then, there seems to exist the recognition that the present crisis has been brought on by the provocation of the Pristina government led by Hashim Thaci. This, however, will not affect the international community's line on Kosovo. The UN General Assembly and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) have emphasised the inviolability of Kosovo's territorial integrity since its independence, and this will continue to guide practice.

In 2010, in its advisory opinion, the ICJ stated that Pristina's declaration of independence in 2008 did not violate international law; eighty states including, crucially, most EU members have recognised the Republic of Kosovo. Pristina's challenge to the status quo has been heavily criticised by the international actors but, nonetheless, there is little that the Serbian government can do to avoid its present bind. Having extradited the war criminals, Mladic and Hazdic, to the Hague Tribunal, President Tadic has sought to bring Serbia's EU accession closer. But with the main international players recognising the personality and territorial disposition of Kosovo, the status of the Serb enclave—and the issue of territorial cession and the unsavoury precedent that it could set for other parts of the Balkans—will have to be addressed. The resolution of territorial disputes is a longstanding condition of EU membership and the recent provocation by Pristina will cause a headache in Belgrade, where the government appears convinced of a need to move away from its own past and towards the EU.

Sources: Al Jazeera, BBC, Dallas Morning News, Spiegel, United Nations