21-28 April 2018, Arusha, Tanzania

The regime of the Continental Shelf under the Law of the Sea is complex and intriguing especially when involving sovereign rights of States beyond 200 nautical miles off their coasts. This maritime domain is generally referred to as the Extended Continental Shelf. Matters concerning the Continental Shelf including Extended Continental Shelf are largely rooted in Article 76 of the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, and more generally in its Part VI. Complexities surrounding the regime of the Continental Shelf are underscored by the existence of a dedicated body – the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf – mandated to apply scientific and technical aspects concerning the Continental Shelf. However, the Commission discharges its functions in accordance with Article 76 which thereby brings to bear legal and scientific underpinnings to the idea and meaning of the Continental Shelf.

Accordingly, avenues to better understand matters concerning the Continental Shelf are helpful and essential. The Summer Academy on the Continental Shelf is one such platform dedicated to the dissemination of scientific and legal knowledge relating to the regime of the Continental Shelf, in particular on the area beyond 200 nautical miles.

In 2018, the Summer Academy on the Continental Shelf took place from 21-28 April in Arusha, Tanzania. The programme was held under the auspices of the University of the Faroe Islands and the African Institute of International Law, with the Korean Maritime Institute being a sponsor. MIMA was represented by its Deputy Director General, Dr Rizal Abdul Kadir. The programme had a good balance between theory and practice, with instructors comprising judges from the International Court of Justice, members from the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, as well as experts involved in relevant legal cases and submissions by States for claims to a Continental Shelf beyond 200 nautical miles.

Beginning by dissecting the definition of the Continental Shelf under the Article 76, application of the Article 76 witnessed more intricate knowledge disseminated at the session. For example, this meant understanding fundamentals like the Foot of the continental slope and the process of pin-pointing the foot of the continental slope. It was also useful to understand how the complex formulae under paragraphs 4, 5 and 6 of Article 76 are to be applied towards establishing the outer limits of the continental shelf. Further insights included understanding that the morphology of the continental margin does not always clearly distinguish between, for example, the slope, rise, and abyssal plain.  This scenario triggers twin issues: identification of the region of the base of the continental slope, and the location of the point of maximum change in gradient within that region. These issues suggest that morphological evidence alone may be insufficient to clarify both the aforementioned matters. In such circumstances, it is important to understand another aspect concerning the continental shelf, that is, the relevance of the nature and concept of the continent-ocean transition, and in the process the meaning of and difference between a passive and active margin.

Knowledge gained from the Summer Academy helps in understanding real issues and difficulties experienced by States claiming a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles off their coasts. Such issues include determining what happens where the foot of the slope is extremely difficult to define on the basis of bathymetric data alone, in which case the interplay between geological and geophysical data gains much importance.

More generally, although certainly by no means less complex, because continental margins are rarely straight, it is significant to also learn when and how to apply straight bridging lines in accordance with Article 76. A parallel but distinct matter is delimitation of the continental shelf. This requires application of Article 76 and Article 83 of the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention which warrants special attention beyond the present scope of this note.

All said, an overarching lesson from the Summer Academy is this: it is important for States claiming an extended continental shelf to have a diverse pool of experts on the subject, at different levels of seniority for each area of expertise, with a long-term succession plan, and regularly updated on both the legal and scientific developments on the Continental Shelf.

Towards that end, the Maritime Institute of Malaysia is happy to have participated in the programme and looks forward to engaging interested stakeholders.


Participants at the 2018 Summer Academy of the Continental Shelf, Arusha, Tanzania.

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