Dominica’s sovereignty claim over Bird Island must be revisited
August 31, 2016 1:14 P.M
Roseau, Dominica (TDN)
In August 2005 the then Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez dramatically announced his plan for strengthening his country’s sovereignty claim over the disputed Bird Island or Isla de Aves. According to Chavez a pregnant lady would be sent there to give birth.
In October of that same year Venezuela hastily commissioned a ‘naval base’ on the island and stationed some 17 officers to man the post. At the time, Venezuelan Commander Guillermo Isturiz noted: “Aves
Island belongs to Venezuela. Several nations in the Eastern Caribbean dispute that claim, but we are reaffirming our sovereignty here.”
Bird Island have for a long time being the subject of discussion and controversy. The island at its widest point is barely 50 meters wide and stretches for about 400 meters. At low tide the highest point on the ‘island’ is barely 3 feet.
While Venezuela has a claim of sovereignty and a historic title of the Island after it was handed over by Queen Isabella of Spain in 1865, Dominica’s sovereign claim stems from the fact that it is within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
According to the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) every sovereign state is entitled to an EEZ stretching some 200 miles to the edge of its maritime boundary. The country also has the right to use and dispose of resources contained therein, and prevent unauthorized access to their territory by other states. Aves Island sits some 140 miles West in the Caribbean Sea from the Northern coast of Dominica and 350 miles from the Venezuelan coast.
Although Venezuela has not ratified UNCLOS it however claims under its provisions that its sovereignty of Aves Island grants it rightful access to any territorial waters, EEZ, and continental shelf.
Dominica and other Caribbean countries however argue that Aves Island is really not an island under the UN convention and is simply a rock thus Venezuela is not entitled to 200 miles of EEZ.
This seeming dispute would normally not amount to much except that the waters around Aves Island has large stocks of fish and endless reserves of petroleum products. In fact some estimates predict that the area could contain up to 20 percent of the world’s reserves of natural gas.
Most of the frenetic activity around Bird Island happened in the early 2000’s forcing Venezuela to act. At that time Caribbean countries were adamant that they could not respect Venezuela’s claims based on the fact that Venezuela’s EEZ would now extend to within just miles of their territories.
Dominica was particularly vocal given the fact that it had the most to gain if the country’s sovereignty rights were upheld. However, all the diplomatic posturing including the issuance of press communiques from the Caribbean Heads of States suddenly halted after a trip to Caracas Venezuela by Dominica’s prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit in June 2006.
Skerrit also emerged from his discussions with a promise of some 29 million in housing assistance. It was also shortly around that time that the Petro Caraibe agreement came into force.
After his Caracas visit Skerrit when quizzed about Venezuela’s claim at a CARICOM Heads of Government press conference in Guyana remarked “It’s a fact. So there is nothing we can do from a legal standpoint to reclaim Bird Island.”
A government official later tried to explain that “the PM’s remarks were not intended to recognize Venezuela’s claim of sovereignty to the disputed territory, but simply state the current legal situation. Dominica understands that several countries have previously recognized Venezuela’s right to Bird Island, and that if the matter goes to arbitration Dominica may very well lose.”
Since those remarks back in 2006 intriguingly, all public pronouncements by the Dominica government regarding its sovereign claim to Bird Island has all but ceased. In addition the promised discussion between the two governments on boundary (de-limitation) issues have as far as we know not taken place.
Now more than ten years after Skerrit appearing to acquiesce to Venezuela there is renewed interest on the island of Dominica in the issue. Not least based on the recent published reports that as much as 20 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves are to be found in the sea around Aves Island.
Questions are being asked concerning why the Dominica government has never acted to engage Venezuela on this critical issue and why are efforts not currently being made to secure the UN’s involvement.
Also why has the Dominica government not requested the services of the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea or the International Court of Justice in this all important matter?
This is particularly critical given the recent ruling by the ICJ denying China’s claim to islands in the South China Sea. This important precedent is bound to have a bearing on the dispute between Dominica and Venezuela.
Article II of the UN Charter grants sovereign equality to all member countries. Further, sovereign rights empower states to act in manners reasonably necessary to further state interests and those of their citizens. The question then becomes whether the Dominica government will exercise those rights or whether it will simply settle for petro casas.