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International Boundaries Research Unit

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Bangladesh initiates arbitration with India and Myanmar over maritime boundaries

(15 October 2009)

Bangladesh has initiated proceedings for arbitration of its maritime boundaries with India and Myanmar using the dispute resolution provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Bangladesh's foreign minister Dipu Moni announced the move at a press conference on 8 October 2009 after meeting with diplomats from India and Myanmar.

By default States Parties to UNCLOS consent to binding third-party adjudication as a means of resolving disputes relating to the interpretation or application of the convention. States can exclude maritime boundaries from the list of issues which are subject to compulsory adjudication, but to date neither India nor Myanmar has made a declaration to this effect. Even if a State Party declines to accept adjudication, it is obliged to enter into conciliation proceedings if another State Party seeks to resolve the dispute through third-party assistance. So far neither India nor Myanmar has responded publicly to Bangladesh's move.

Bangladesh has appointed the American law firm Foley Hoag LLP to represent it in the arbitration, along with Professors James Crawford and Payam Akhavan as co-counsel. It has also been reported that Professor Vaughan Lowe has been nominated by Bangladesh as a member of the proposed arbitration tribunal. It is believed that Bangladesh will request the arbitral tribunal delimit boundaries for the territorial sea, exclusive economic zone and outer continental shelf areas within the Bay of Bengal. Foreign Minister Moni expressed hope that Bangladesh could get a fair share of the resources in the Bay of Bengal through arbitration, but stressed that bilateral negotiations would continue alongside the arbitration proceedings. Bangladesh indicates that no agreements on maritime boundaries have been agreed with either neighbour in over thirty years of on-off negotiations. The Foreign Minister also dismissed suggestions that China had been approached as a mediator in negotiations with Myanmar. Given the concave and highly unstable nature of the northern Bay of Bengal coastline, it is unsurprising that negotiations have been so complex.

Several oil companies, including ConocoPhillips and Tullow Oil, are competing for concession areas in the Bay of Bengal which could hold significant natural gas deposits. Tensions are also running high along the Bangladesh-Myanmar land boundary where both sides have dispatched military forces after reports suggested that Myanmar had restarted construction of its border fence on 9 October. However, some reports indicate that the sides have agreed to talks early next month in efforts to diffuse the growing military tension.

Sources: Foley Hoag Retained by Bangladesh for Arbitrations Against India and Myanmar Over Boundaries in Bay of Bengal's Resource-Rich Waters; Dispute has frustrated Bangladesh's attempts to access undersea oil and natural gas; Foley Hoag lead counsel Paul Reichler says Myanmar warships have intimidated foreign oil companies from drilling in Bangladesh waters’ PR Newswire (U.S.), 13 October 2009; 'Bangladesh and Myanmar to Hold Talks amid Military Build-Up' Maria Patrikainen, IHS Global Insight Daily Analysis, 13 October 2009; 'Maritime boundary: Dhaka hopes to get fair deal' New Age (Dhaka), 12 October 2009; 'Dhaka to take row with India, Myanmar to U.N.' Haroon Habib, The Hindu, 10 October 2009.

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