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Durham University

Department of Geography

Boundary-Making and Resolving Disputed Territorial Claims

IBRU: Centre for Borders Research has improved the understanding of boundaries and boundary-making on land, along rivers and at sea through the development of databases and digital maps and through training activities. Alongside direct impact on a range of geopolitical conflicts and disputes IBRU's work has shaped debate over jurisdictional issues in the Arctic and improved the representation of river boundaries in products such as Google Earth.

Boundary Making and resolving disputed territorial claims

Boundary Making and resolving disputed territorial claims

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IBRU's mission is to facilitate enhanced understanding of border areas, contribute to the peaceful resolution of boundary disputes, and engage with broader geographic questions concerning the changing nature of sovereignty, territory, citizenship, and the political organisation of space. Through its consulting and training programmes, it has had particular impact in the areas of international boundary delimitation, demarcation and dispute settlement. This has involved generating data on boundaries, assessing why boundaries have become problematic, and developing practical techniques for boundary delimitation, demarcation, maintenance, and management.

IBRU research has focused on documenting boundaries, understanding the implications of demarcating and administering them in different kinds of environments (terrestrial, maritime, and riverine), and considering how these practical considerations have been affected by the availability of satellite imagery and other new technology. For example, IBRU research on maritime boundaries has highlighted their ambiguity and importance in potential resource conflict. The 1982 UN Convention on Law of the Sea prescribes sovereign rights within a 200-nautical-mile ‘exclusive economic zone’ off a country’s coast, but allows more extensive claims if a ‘natural prolongation’ (e.g. continental shelf or submarine ridge) extends farther offshore. These definitions are precise-sounding but until recently were operationally vague because of limited mapping. IBRU’s work includes a pioneering study of the Arctic which used newly-compiled bathymetric data from the U.S. National Geophysical Data Center to plot the outermost-possible extent of territorial claims to much greater precision than was previously possible.

Examples of Impact

Training for boundary-making and dispute resolution

Recognising the linkages between boundary definition, the development of state competencies, and the role of states as fundamental political entities, IBRU has created various knowledge exchange partnerships leading to impact on boundary-making procedures and dispute resolution, particularly in Africa. Since January 2008, IBRU has delivered training workshops around the world to 453 individuals from 65 different countries including representatives from >150 organisations, including government departments, non-government organisations, and multinational corporations.

A good example of the impact of IBRU’s training and consultancy is that of Mozambique’s international border demarcation programme. In 2011 IBRU helped organise training workshops to assist the Mozambique government as it prepared for international negotiations sponsored by the African Union Boundary Programme. IBRU further assisted in a consulting capacity with subsequent work on revalidating Mozambique’s baselines. This process has been vital to re-examining a range of disputed claims to mineral resources such as those on the Malawi border, emergent fisheries in the southwest Indian Ocean, and international interest in hydrocarbon resources in the sea bed. Some of the terrestrial borders remain under discussion but the IBRU-trained negotiators reached rapid agreement with The Comoros, Seychelles, and Tanzania on the delimitation of their mutual maritime boundaries, with three new bilateral boundary agreements, two tripoint agreements, and the revision of an existing boundary agreement.

International River Boundaries Database

IBRU’s work on the practicalities of boundary-making has also had impact through using modern technology to create open-access geospatial data products. For example, our research has highlighted the importance of rivers as supposedly convenient ‘natural’ boundaries, and the practical problems associated with them. Through the Royal Geographical Society-funded International River Boundaries Database programme, IRBU has created a database that has been adopted by the US Department of State as well as Google (and Google Earth), thereby helping improve the accuracy of international boundary maps for millions of computer users worldwide.