What is the poor fisherman’s fault?

Pakistan and India have yet to demarcate their maritime boundary.

Khalid Saleem July 19, 2013
The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of the OIC

Every now and then, the media carries reports about fishermen from either India or Pakistan having been apprehended for fishing in the other country’s territorial waters. There are also less frequent reports about another batch of fishermen having been released and repatriated. A lot has been written about the humanitarian aspects of the question — the miseries of the detained fishermen and their families — but few attempts are made to ferret out the reason for why this happens in the first place.

The main reason happens to be that the two neighbours have yet to demarcate their maritime boundary. As a matter of fact, they have not even reached agreement on the ‘land terminus’ that would represent the starting point for the maritime boundary. The International Law of the Sea Convention defines each country’s “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ), but apparently does little to push neighbouring countries to promptly delineate their maritime boundary. India and Pakistan are, perhaps, the worst offenders on this score, due to the non-settlement of what has come to be known as the ‘Sir Creek Squabble’.

Some time back, a news item, datelined New Delhi, led to some raised eyebrows. It stated that “India will soon erect a ‘floating fence’… along the disputed Sir Creek border area with Pakistan”. Sources were reported to have said that the fence would be erected “despite the ongoing (India-Pakistan) talks, in order to safeguard Indian security interest”. The item went on to give details of the fence project, as well as its projected cost. What is of particular interest is the fact that by carrying out this project, India appeared to be intent on presenting Pakistan — and the international community — with another fait accompli that would only serve to further complicate the ongoing negotiations.

A short recapitulation of the dispute may be in order. The United Nations website names the issue as “Sir Creek estuary border dispute”. This is not quite accurate. Having been deeply involved in the bilateral negotiations on this issue in the 1990s, one can opine that the dispute has little to do with the Sir Creek estuary or even Sir Creek itself. The dispute is about completing the demarcation of the land boundary between India and Pakistan abutting on the sea. The terms of reference are connected with an historical map relating to the boundary between the Rann of Kutch and the Sindh province of British India. This map depicts a dotted line demarcating the boundary in question some distance away from what was then the left bank of Sir Creek. The fact that Sir Creek has since changed its course should, logically, have no bearing at all on the ‘dotted line’ in question.

The squabble that carries the misnomer “Sir Creek dispute” is arguably the most solvable of the contentious issues on the bilateral table. It is also of great significance since on the settlement of this issue would rest the definition of the land/sea terminus of the frontier, as also the extent of Pakistan’s EEZ in terms of the International Law of the Sea Convention.

Reverting to the tragedy of the detained fishermen, there appears to be hardly a respite on the horizon, unless the two countries show the political will to settle the Sir Creek squabble. As things stand, there is little likelihood of this happening in the foreseeable future.

One other way of tackling the human aspect of the question would be to delink it from the Sir Creek dispute. It may be of interest to mention here that in 1997, when the ‘joint declaration’ relating to the composite dialogue was agreed, a separate ‘understanding’ on the prompt release of fishermen apprehended by either side was orally agreed. Sad to report, though, that this ‘understanding’ failed to cross the bureaucratic hurdles in the way of it being put down in black and white. But such is the history of India-Pakistan negotiations.

Meanwhile, the detained fishermen on either side will continue to suffer for no fault of theirs.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 20th, 2013.

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