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Australia announces extended continental shelf

The territory of Australia has dramatically increased following the announcement on 21 April 2008 that its claim to an extended continental shelf has been approved by the Commission on the Outer Limits of the Continental Shelf. According to Martin Ferguson, Australian Minister for Resources and Energy, “Australia now has jurisdiction over an extra 2.5 million square kilometres of continental shelf, which is almost five times the size of France, seven times the size of Germany and almost 10 times the size of New Zealand.” Read the full statement.

The Commission on the Outer Limits of the Continental Shelf is created under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This body of technical and scientific experts is charged with verifying the data submitted by coastal states in support of their claims to an extended continental shelf beyond 200 miles from their coasts. According to the 1982 Convention, a coastal state can only delimit its outer continental shelf on the basis of the recommendations of the Commission and “the limits of the shelf established by a coastal state on the basis of these recommendations shall be final and binding.” See the full text of Article 76.

There is one aspect of the Australian submission, however, that remains outstanding; that is the area appurtenant to its claimed Antarctic territory. Sovereignty over Antarctica is a controversial subject given the disputed status of the continent and the terms of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty which provides that “No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctic shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.” There is some disagreement over whether a claim to an extended continental shelf amounts to a new claim or an extension of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty. Nevertheless, when making its submission to the Commission, Australia requested that the information relating to the Antarctic was not examined for the time being. See the request.

In addition to the Australian submission, eight other submissions are pending before the Commission:

  • the Russian Federation
  • Brazil
  • Ireland
  • New Zealand
  • A joint submission from France, Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom
  • Norway
  • France
  • Mexico

See further details on these submissions and the work of the Commission.

Under the Law of the Sea Convention, all states must submit information on their extended continental shelf within ten years of the entry into force of the Convention. However, the States Parties to the Law of the Sea Convention have agreed that the ten-year time limit shall be deemed to start from 13 May 1999 for those states for which the Convention entered into force before that date. See decision SPLOS/72. This deadline is now looming and there is some debate whether all states, in particular developing coastal states, will be able to comply. Further discussion of this issue, including the possibility of further extending the deadline for some states, will be taken up at the next meeting of the States Parties to the Law of the Sea Convention in June 2008. See decision SPLOS/162.

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