The United Nations has endorsed the joint submission by two Commonwealth countries, Mauritius and Seychelles, for 396,000 square kilometres of additional seabed in the Indian Ocean - an area equivalent in size to Germany.
Joint access to the additional areas of seabed and resources - which include oil and gas reserves, mineral deposits and living marine organisms - will help future generations of both countries. The Commonwealth Secretariat assisted in the preparation of the submission.
Following news of the endorsement of the joint submission, the President of Seychelles, James Michel, said: "This is a significant achievement for Seychelles and Mauritius. It is the first time two small island states in the Indian Ocean have presented a joint submission, and successfully collaborated to build this major bridge in delimitation of their maritime territories. It shows how we can develop our relations with our island neighbours for the mutual benefit of our peoples and ensure the future sustainable exploitation of marine and mineral resources."
The joint submission by these two countries, made under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, was the first to be made in any form by a country in the Africa region or Indian Ocean, and also represented the first joint submission made by two small island states anywhere in the world.
Area of additional continental shelf confirmed by the United Nations totalling 396,000 sq. km.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is a multilateral treaty that establishes a framework of rules and principles to govern all ocean space. The convention has been ratified by over 150 countries, including some 47 Commonwealth member countries.
At the time of the lodgement of the submission in December 2008, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, said:
"The making of a joint submission by these two Commonwealth member countries bears witness to what can be achieved through trust, co-operation and a mutual desire to address matters of international and national significance."
Joshua Brien, a Legal Adviser who leads the Maritime Boundary Programme in the Secretariat, and managed this project from its inception, said: "This is a major success story for both small island countries, who have overcome many obstacles to achieve this unprecedented result. "This is to my knowledge, the first time that the commission has confirmed an entitlement to the full area claimed by a state, either individually or in a joint submission, which adds to the significance of the result."
The submission was prepared by teams of scientific, technical and legal officials established by each country, who collaborated through a series of intensive joint working sessions. The Secretariat assisted in the co-ordination of the joint working sessions and provided assistance during the development and examination of the submission in the form of in-house legal expertise and the engagement of scientific and technical experts to provide advice to the government teams.
What is a continental shelf?
The continental shelf of a coastal state comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance. (Source: Article 76, 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea)
The process of preparing the submission has served to enhance co-operation between the two countries concerning the management of their ocean space. This can be seen in the conclusion of an exclusive economic zone boundary - marking the area over which a state has special rights for the exploration and use of marine resources - between the two countries, after many decades of uncertainty, and also the creation of a joint management committee to manage the joint area of seabed.
The success of the claim also serves as an example to other countries with overlapping continental shelf entitlements of what can be achieved through co-operation as opposed to acting unilaterally.
The Commonwealth Secretariat is working with member countries throughout the world, including many of the world's smallest and most vulnerable states, to delimit their maritime boundaries and to prepare and defend submissions for additional areas of continental shelf.