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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

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ICJ delimits Romania-Ukraine maritime boundary

(3 February 2009)

Romania-Ukraine boundary map
On 3 February 2009 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) delivered its judgment in the maritime boundary case between Romania and Ukraine. Although Romania had already recognised Ukrainian sovereignty over an insular feature known as Serpent’s Island, the dispute centred around how that feature would impact the delimitation of their maritime boundary through the northwestern area of the Black Sea. Romania argued that Serpent’s Island, located 20 nautical miles (nm) offshore of the Danube delta, should be considered a rock and therefore only capable of generating a 12 nm territorial sea under Article 121(3) of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Romania also argued that as a rock, Serpent’s Island should not influence the alignment of the maritime boundary further out to sea. Ukraine argued that Serpent’s Island is a full-fledged island and generates its own continental shelf and exclusive economic zone. Likewise, Ukraine argued that Serpent’s Island should be given full weight in delimiting the maritime boundary.

Contrary to the claims of a number of early news reports, the ICJ decided that it was not necessary to determine whether Serpent’s Island is a rock or an island in order to delimit the maritime boundary. However, apart from a very short section (between identified points 1 and 2) of the adjudged boundary that follows a 12 nm arc measured from Serpent’s Island, the ICJ ignored this feature in the construction of the boundary. Beyond point 2, the boundary was addressed in two discrete sections. The first section, extending east southeast from point 2 to point 4, was defined laterally along the equidistance line measured from the two adjacent coastlines on the western shoreline of the Black Sea. At point 4, the Court ruled that the boundary turns almost due south to follow the equidistance line between Romania’s coastline and the opposite coastline of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The ICJ did not identify an endpoint to the boundary, pending the delimitation of other maritime boundaries with neighbouring states (Bulgaria and Turkey).

The ICJ utilised a methodology that has become standard practice in recent maritime boundary cases. First, the Court drew a provisional equidistance line based on the identified relevant coastlines. It then took into account any relevant circumstances that would justify a departure from the equidistance line. Beyond point 2, the ICJ believed there were no relevant circumstances that required such a departure. The short section between points 1 and 2 delimited along the 12 nm arc from Serpent’s Island was chosen by the ICJ pursuant with other agreements reached between Romania and Ukraine. Without specifying the island’s legal status, the ICJ did state explicitly that in this case its conclusion was that Serpent’s Island could only generate a 12 nm territorial sea and should not be included as part of the relevant coastlines. The all-purpose boundary now divides the territorial seas, continental shelves and exclusive economic zones claimed by the two states.

Additional information: Judgment in the Case Concerning Maritime Delimitation in the Black Sea (Romania v. Ukraine), 3 February 2009, ICJ General List No 132; ICJ Press Release No. 2009/9.