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Regional News

February 29, 2004
Maritime Dispute Editorial
Stabroek News

Suriname is likely to be less than enthusiastic that Guyana has referred the maritime dispute to arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). If that is indeed so, she has only herself to reproach, since she has always adopted an absolutist negotiating stance, not least during the talks when this country was seeking an accommodation to allow the return of the CGX rig to the area of overlap after her gunboats had evicted it in June 2000. This is despite the fact that Guyana (not for the first time) offered her joint exploitation of the oil resources there, without prejudice to any future boundary settlement.

This was a pragmatic approach, recognizing as it did, that there was no point in stalling the economic development of two poor nations, while the matter of border definition was being addressed - a normally tedious process even in the most benign of circumstances, which these were not. Suri -name, however, was soon revealed to be playing an entirely different game: she was using the issue of the return of the CGX rig as a bargaining chip to extract concessions in the New River area. It was a high-risk strategy, because Guyana could have opted for arbitration in Hamburg under UNCLOS at any point (which she has now done), and was never, therefore, in a true situation of blackmail.

In fact, the eviction of the rig was high-risk strategy in its own right, accompanied as it was by a high-decibel propaganda campaign that Guyana had no legitimate claim to the area of overlap, and no rights to the New River Triangle. As every Venezuelan government since the 1960s could have told Suriname , that is a tiger which it is very hard to dismount. When President Jules Wijdenbosch's administration sent in the gunboats, therefore, it coralled itself into a corner from which it had no avenue for retreat. Had it made the 'concession' of joint exploitation after that, it would have appeared to the Surinamese public as nothing less than a betrayal.

Even President Venetiaan's Government, however willing in principle it might have been to negotiate the return of CGX , probably in practice felt itself inhibited from doing so. All Surinamese governments are coalitions, and an issue which so touched on nationalist sentiment was not one which any of the major parties would wish to take a risk on. A hard line with Guyana , in contrast, plays well with the Surinamese population, not least at election time.

It might be noted, that it has been nearly four years since our neighbour's military displaced the rig, and if Paramaribo truly believed that their claims in the area were as solid as they have purported, then they would have taken the same route which Guyana has now elected to follow. In fact, there are only two circumstances under which they should have entertained ejecting CGX : firstly, if they considered themselves to have a strong legal case in relation to the maritime zone where the drilling was to take place, in which event as stated above they would have gone to Hamburg not long after sending in the Coast Guard; or, if they believed themselves to have a weak case, and the military display was intended to force Guyana into conceding joint exploitation. In the latter instance, however, they would have had to have prepared the groundwork with their population in a far different manner from what in fact was done.

Capitol News has reported our Foreign Ministry sources as saying that the Guyana Government was anxious in case Paramaribo got wind of the course of action this country intended to take, and filed a reservation to the arbitration provisions in UNCLOS. They had cause to be concerned that Suriname would try and stall the process, given (among other reasons) the ill-advised political gamble which that nation had taken. Before we took this decision it is clear that a great deal of preparation work would have had to have been undertaken. Hopefully, contingency planning at all levels has also been done in relation to a range of possible responses from Suriname to the announcement.

Now that this country has shown its hand, all segments of Guyanese society should support the move - especially the main political opposition which made a less than coherent statement on the matter last week. The PNCR can afford to give the Government unequi -vocal support on what is an eminently rational approach to a territorial issue, and still maintain its criticism of the administration in relation to its other spheres of responsibility. That is not to operate inconsistently; it is to operate in the national interest.

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