Presentation on continental shelf limits at opportune time: FM

Foreign Ministry Secretary C. R. Jayasinghe responding to the Sunday Times news item under the caption “Foreign Ministry battle hits Lanka’s sea claim” on February 21, 2010 has explained their position on the story.

The ministry said;

The article takes up the position that Sri Lanka is “due to make its final submission during the spring session of the CLCS around April this year …..” The factual position is that Sri Lanka as one of the original States party to the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) made its submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) on 8th May 2009, which was well within the time period allotted for this purpose.

That our submission has been registered as received, is evidenced by the availability of the first part of the document handed over by Sri Lanka, namely the Executive Summary, in the public domain of the CLCS website,

Once the United Nations accepts the Submission of a State party to the UNCLOS, the CLCS has the responsibility of adjudicating the merits of the case presented to it. The methodology of the CLCS is that the entire Commission which presently consists of 21 members will not sit in adjudication. Rather, the workload of submissions is to be apportioned among three Sub Commissions constituted for this purpose, each consisting of seven members. Up to now, none of the three proposed Sub Commissions has been set-up.As for the State which made the submission, the next obligation is to make an oral presentation, in order to further validate its case.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs received in this connection on the 8th of October 2009 through our Permanent Representative in New York, a communication from Mr. Alexandre Tagore Medeiros de Albuquerque, the Chairman of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. A copy of this letter is attached hereto and it would be observed the Chairman specifically states that, “should the Government of Sri Lanka prefer to postpone its presentation to a later session, when it would be more practical and useful in anticipation of the establishment of a sub commission to examine the submission, it may do so. At this stage, the Commission is not in a position to decide upon the establishment of a sub commission to consider the submission.” The Chairman also adds that “the timing of the presentation would not affect the position of the submission in the queue or the establishment of a sub commission.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave serious consideration to this letter from the Chairman, which clearly implied that the more practical and useful moment for the oral presentation would be when the Sub Commission is in place. Accordingly, the Ministry sent a Diplomatic Note to the Secretary General of the United Nations on 21st January 2010 through the Sri Lanka Mission in New York, informing that guided by the observations of the Chairman of the CLCS, Sri Lanka prefers to make her presentation once the relevant Sub Commission is in place. The Note also sought further information from the Secretary General of the likely date of the establishment of the relevant Sub Commission that would examine Sri Lanka’s submission.

We trust that the above would serve to set the record straight with regard to this matter of the timing of Sri Lanka’s oral presentation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs wishes to reiterate that it will along with the other partner agencies of the Government, continue to use the time available until the Sub Commission is set up to prepare to the maximum possible, so that the presentation when made, serves to validate in full our aforementioned submission of 8th May 2009.

Our Diplomatic Editor writes:

The Foreign Ministry does not dispute the basic facts in our story, namely, that Sri Lanka is seeking a postponement of its oral presentation of claims to the continental shelf -- and amidst ongoing negotiations heading towards a conclusion. The Ministry says the only reason for the postponement of its presentation to a later session is due to a suggestion made by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).

The chairman of the CLCS offered the option for a deferment only because of the large number of submissions that have piled up. Sri Lanka did not have to exercise this option. But the Foreign Ministry picked up on this offer to defer its presentation -- particularly after the Government had spent considerable resources, both human and financial, in our quest for a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines.

Sri Lanka's deferment has also disappointed several other countries which were awaiting a CLCS decision before they could make their own claims. As a result, Sri Lanka is not only holding up traffic -- metaphorically speaking -- in the high seas but also losing its credibility in the negotiating process.
But what is all the more intriguing is that the decision to defer the presentation was taken without consultations either with the Sri Lanka Mission to the UN, which has been actively involved in the negotiations, or the New York based Sri Lankan consultant with over 30 years experience in the Law of the Sea talks.

Needless to say, this fiasco has unfortunately delayed the opening up of a vast new area of the continental shelf for oil and gas exploration by Sri Lanka, which leaves one key question unanswered: was this decision taken in the national interest or with other ulterior motives in mind?

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