The Law of the Sea may not be everybody’s 'cup of tea' - but who rules over our seas and oceans is everyone’s concern. Even so, the first maritime border judgement by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) went almost unnoticed on Wednesday.
By Geraldine Coughlan, The Hague
The historic first ruling by the UN tribunal in Hamburg, settling a complex dispute between Bangladesh and Myanmar, was overshadowed by the historic first judgement at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
The focus of international media attention, naturally, was the conviction of Thomas Lubanga, former Congolese rebel leader, for enlisting child soldiers. Most journalists were gathered in The Hague and there was little space in world news headlines for reports from Hamburg.
New sea border
ITLOS laid down a new sea border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, ruling on a decades-long dispute in a resource-rich area that has been a frequent flashpoint for the two nations.
ITLOS upheld Bangladesh’s claim to an area around St. Martin’s island in the Bay of Bengal, which contains important energy reserves. Bangladesh has been restrained from exploiting them because of the dispute.
The row brought the two countries to the brink of war in 2008 when Bangladesh accused Myanmar of exploring for gas in disputed waters.
The announcement of the ITLOS ruling on the same day as the Lubanga judgement has sparked surprise.
It’s “part of a trend,” says Dapo Akande of Oxford University. “ITLOS seems to take special care in ensuring that its work is completely overshadowed by the work of other international courts,” he blogs cynically in the European International Law Journal (EJIL).
Two important hearings at ITLOS also recently got very little attention.
Those on the Bangladesh/Myanmar case were overshadowed by hearings on immunity from claims by victims of the Nazi regime in foreign courts in Germany v. Italy at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) last September.
A year earlier, ITLOS hearings on the responsibility of States for activities in the International Seabed Area were held the same week as ICJ hearings on the elimination of racial discrimination in Georgia v. Russia.
Akande finds it “strange” that ITLOS and ICJ hearings were fixed for the same time, particularly as the ICJ holds only a few hearings a year.
“Perhaps ITLOS is not deliberating trying to hide its light under a bowl, but it couldn’t do a better job of hiding away if it was deliberately trying,” Akande concludes. His claim is not without substance.
Hide and seek
Major events at international courts in The Hague also often overlap. This makes it difficult for journalists to cover them and for news outlets to report on.
For instance, as far back as 2004, the ICTY sentenced Bosnian Serb Darko Mrdja to 17 years in prison the same day the ICJ ruled that the US breached its obligations to Mexican nationals on death row.
Ironically, the ICTY trial of former prosecution spokeswoman Florence Hartmann for contempt of court in 2009 started the same day the ICC committed former DRC Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba to trial.
And the ICTY ordered a re-trial of former Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj the same day the ICJ announced a frontier dispute between Burkina Faso and Niger in 2010.
Overlaps in the calendar of major events in international justice in the past decade beg the question as to whether a certain ‘dynamic’ exists between international judges, deliberately geared towards overlaps in their planning agendas.
Or perhaps, simply a certain lack of communication between international courts on avoiding overlaps?
With better overall planning, taking important events in international justice into account, the courts and the media could certainly deliver more timely information to a more extensive public.