Recently, the Permanent Court of Arbitration passed its award on the maritime boundary dispute between India and neighboring Bangladesh. The proceedings were initiated by Bangladesh in the year 2009, under the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The 40 year old dispute ended with the Tribunal delimiting the territorial sea, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the continental shelf in the Bay of Bengal between the two parties. The Award was given out in the favor of Bangladesh which received a heavy chunk of Bay of Bengal to itself.
The tribunal, delivered the award after a long and detailed procedure as permitted under the provisions of Annex VII to the Convention which lays down the procedure for Arbitration pursuant to Article 287 of the Convention. The Tribunal conducted site visits and considered expert hydrographic reports. The decision is binding and cannot be appealed against.
The Tribunal recognized the fact that the present dispute started in 1947, when Bangladesh, then known as East Bengal, became part of Pakistan. The demarcation of the boundaries between West and East Bengal was as per the ‘Radcliffe Award’ of the Bengal Boundary Commission appointed by the then Governor-General of India. The interpretation of this Award was disputed by the two countries. The Tribunal thus, rightly put an end to the dispute by determining the exact co-ordinates of the land boundary terminus between the two parties. Once this was decided, the Tribunal heard and considered the arguments of both the parties as to the base points for delimiting the territorial sea and thereafter, the EEZ and the continental shelf. Interestingly, the Tribunal had applied the disproportionality test, wherein the ratio of the relevant maritime space accorded to each Party is compared to the ratio of the Parties’ relevant coastal lengths, and come to the conclusion that it was not disproportionate.
The Tribunal may have delimited the sea between the two countries, but what does it have in store for both countries?
Both parties are developing nations and therefore, the Award has significant ramifications for each of them. I would be dealing with three main interests that the Parties have in the Bay of Bengal:
- MARITIME SECURITY
The Bay of Bengal, connecting South Asia to South East Asia, has always been of strategic importance to the Parties and other littoral states like Myanmar, Sri Lanka etc. Abundant in natural resources and fishing resources, the Bay of Bengal has immense opportunities for all these States. However, the interests shown by the rising power, China and also the US, have made these littoral states wary to the potential interventions in the Bay. Therefore, the Award confers the Parties to take stock of the situation. India already has trilateral maritime relations with Sri Lanka and Maldives in the Southern Indian Ocean, and it is high time that the Parties enter into such relations along with the Myanmar to ensure security in the Bay of Bengal.
- ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Economic development, including oil and gas exploration is another agenda which the Award has allowed the Parties to pursue without any conflict. As mentioned before, the Bay of Bengal is rich in natural resources including hydrocarbons and oil and gas fields. It must be kept in mind that the UNCLOS envisages sovereign rights for exploration and exploitation of natural resources within the EEZ to the coastal state. Since the delimitation of the EEZ has been fixed by the Tribunal, the Parties, especially Bangladesh, can concentrate on developing and inviting companies to exploit the resources which are no more part of contested waters.
Fishing constitutes a huge revenue source for both countries, and according to the Award, the fishermen from both countries have a reason to rejoice as both countries have access to larger areas within the Bay.
Bangladesh has also won a similar dispute with Myanmar which was decided by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in 2012. Naturally, it has a lot to gain from this decision. As far as India is concerned, it has welcomed the Tribunal’s decision, which even though on the face of it, is in favour of Bangladesh, does give considerable importance to the interests of India. Both countries believe that it is a win- win situation and that this would help the countries take their relations one step forward.
About the Author
Meera is currently pursuing her final year of law at National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi. Her core areas of interest are international law and maritime law and she wishes to pursue the same in the future. She loves mooting and dreams of representing her country at the World Court someday. When she isn’t dreaming, she likes to read, play volleyball, travel and meet new people.
 Article 56 of UNCLOS