Posted by: Andi Arsana | August 7, 2007

Toponymy and Extented Continental Shelf: Sovereignty and Sovereign Rights

Kompas (24 July 2007) covered an interesting news regarding the intention of Indonesian government to register thousands of its islands to the United Nations. It was said that Indonesian government is ready for a submission to the UN after verifying at least 3,046 islands in 11 provinces. The verification also includes the activities to name thousands of previously nameless islands across the archipelago. This month, it is targeted that all islands in Indonesia’s 15 provinces can be registered to the UN and the project that started in 2005 is expected to finish this year.

For the laymen in this country, it has been long believed that Indonesia has more than 17 thousands island from Sabang to Merauke (west-east) and From Rote to Miangas (south-north). A –so called- official sources states that there are precisely 17,504 islands in the archipelago. If the data is correct and has gained recognition from the international community including the UN, why would Indonesia need to register their island? If it is true that island naming was the project, didn’t they have name before? This should be very interesting.

Yes, it has to be admitted that we have not yet had names for every single island that we claim to be part of Indonesia. An official states that there are more than 9000 nameless islands in Indonesia and has to be named before registration to the UN (The Jakarta Post, June 11, 2007). This is the fact and this is what we are currently doing. Toponymy is the term for island naming and it involves certain steps and procedures as endorsed by the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN). The twenty-fourth Session will be done in New York on 20 and 31 August 2007 and therefore Indonesia has to submit list of island names beforehand.

Article 121 of the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS), which Indonesia is a party to, provides the definition of islands. In order to be recognized as an island, a feature in the sea has to meet several criteria such as naturally formed, always appear on the surface of the sea even during high tide, and it has to have capacity to sustain human habitation. Surprisingly, as highlighter by Alex SW Retraubun (Department of Ocean Affairs and Fisheries), around three thousand islands proposed by local government did not meet these criteria in verification. This mean that the numbers of islands in Indonesia could be less than that we used to believe.

Notwithstanding the number of the islands, naming the unnamed islands for Indonesia is really strategic. This is considered as the first important step in realizing the intension for developing and maintaining small islands. While it is important for economic development, the more significant impact is to the national sovereignty. It has been evident that this country has been facing many problems concerning sovereignty and sovereign rights. What the government has done to those islands seem to be a very good response. This is an addition to the President Decree concerning the management and developments of small outer islands in Indonesia (PP No 78/2005).

Thu Indonesia’s outer islands play important roles regarding Indonesia’s territorial waters and maritime boundaries with neighboring States. On many of those islands, basepoints of Indonesian baseline were placed. Baseline is the line from which maritime jurisdictions (territorial sea, exclusive economic zones, and continental shelf) are measured. This means that the existence of the small outer islands is vital. This is the forward point from which our maritime claim is measured and maritime boundaries with our neighbors may be constructed. Simply speaking, the toponymic activity (especially for the small outer islands) contributes significantly to the Indonesian economic development, sovereignty, and sovereign rights.

With regard to sovereignty and sovereign rights, it seems that there are tendencies where coastal States intent to claim more and more maritime area. Russia, for example, is currently conducting an expedition to the North Pole to claim the no man’s land. Around 50 scientists were sent off to the North Pole and they plan to place a titanium capsule on the North Pole’s seabed with a Russian Flag in it. This will be an evidence of Russia’s claim over. Similarly, Australia declared its claim over continental shelf in 2004 encompassing the seabed area in the Antarctic. This is another indication that there are “creeping jurisdictions of coastal States”. Is there any legal basis for their maneuver?

What Russia is doing sparks controversy all over the globe. However, there is legal reason for the movement. It is the UNCLOS that enables coastal States to claim continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles (M), which is also called extended continental shelf (ECS). Being State parties to the UNCLOS, Russia and Australia have the chance to submit their claim over ECS to the Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf (CLCS). Therefore we could not really say, at least at the first sight, that they are demonstrating greediness. They have the rights to lodge the claim, but it is then CLCS’ responsibility to consider and make recommendation concerning the claim. It will never be valid until it is recommended by the commission. In other words, ECS claim cannot be done unilaterally.

Similarly, Indonesia also has chances for submitting ECS to CLCS. The deadline for the submission will be on 13 May 2009 and Indonesia is currently conducting serious preparation. It involves serious and careful technical, scientific and legal consideration in order for the submission to be accepted. In addition, the cost for submitting ECS including preparation is undoubtedly not cheap. It naturally begs a question whether it is worth it? This might be difficult to answer. It is not something that can be judged instantly. By securing more continental shelves, at least there are hopes for economic advantages in the future as continental shelf potentially contains oil and gas deposits. In addition, the claim can be a declaration of our national sovereign rights.

What Indonesia, Russia, Australia and other coastal States are doing is another manifestation of declaring their existence. There is one important message they are delivering beyond the economic reason: securing the sovereignty and sovereign rights.


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