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Historic Pacific maritime boundary agreements concluded with Commonwealth assistance

29 August 2012
A series of historic treaties to settle maritime boundaries in the Pacific were signed today at the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

The seven treaties, drafted with assistance from the Special Advisory Services Division (SASD) of the Commonwealth Secretariat, settle exclusive economic zone and continental shelf boundaries between Kiribati, Nauru, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands.

A number of these boundaries have remained unsettled for over the past 30 years due to the isolated nature of these areas, and their limited institutional expertise on legal and technical matters.

Cook Islands Prime Minister and Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, Henry Puna, and Kiribati President Anote Tong attended the signing ceremony.

The Commonwealth assisted with six bilateral agreements and the trilateral agreement.

Mr Tong said: "My government and I deeply appreciate the support provided by the Commonwealth Secretariat towards the eventual signing of bilateral and trilateral maritime boundaries agreements between Kiribati and neighbouring countries after 30 years of it being in the process."

On behalf of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders, Mr Puna acknowledged the invaluable contribution of international organisations, including the Commonwealth, in making possible the signing of the agreements in the spirit of the forum's theme 'Large Ocean Island States - The Pacific Challenge', recognising the effort between countries to harness the benefit from its ocean brings Pacific islands countries together rather than isolates them.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said: “These treaties were developed following the sustained delivery of legal and technical advice by the Commonwealth Secretariat, and serve to illustrate the practical impact achieved through sustained engagement by the Commonwealth in this region. The significance of this development for the countries concerned and for the Pacific region more generally cannot be understated."

Tokelau is a member of the Commonwealth as a territory of New Zealand, with Cook Islands and Niue as self-governing countries in free association with New Zealand.

Established maritime boundaries enable coastal states to better manage the seas surrounding them, and to explore the potentially lucrative natural resources of the waters and seabed. These are particularly important for small island states with few land-based resources.

“The conclusion of these treaties is a major achievement which paves the way for improved management of ocean space and resources by the countries concerned, and for the Pacific region more generally,” said Joshua Brien, Legal Adviser in SASD.

The Commonwealth played a leading role in securing the conclusion of these treaties by assisting Kiribati and Cook Islands to acquire and interpret scientific data, and to prepare and revise legal texts, working in partnership with the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Commission, the Australian Government, and New Zealand in respect of the maritime agreement with Tokelau.

In 2011, the Commonwealth announced an ambitious agenda to assist Pacific member countries to settle their maritime boundaries within five years, and work continues under the Secretariat’s maritime boundaries programme.