Maldives loses continental shelf case with ITLOS ruling: Dr. Munavvar

Former Attorney General Dr. Mohamed Munavvar. | Photo: Muzayyin Nazim

Former Attorney General and international maritime law expert, Dr Munavvar has said that the ruling of the International Tribunal on the Law of the Seas (ITLOS) on the delimitation of the disputed portion of the sea between Maldives and Chagos Archipelago has denied Maldives the chance to gain the continental shelf it sought at the UN in 2010.

Speaking at a press conference today, including former Maldivian attorneys general and political parties, he said Maldives’ claim to the continental shelf was submitted after research he led during President Mohammed Nasheed’s administration.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), the continental shelf of a country is an extension of its land area. Each country would have the right to claim the continental shelf up to 350 nautical miles.

In 2010, Maldives submitted a proposal to the UN Committee to acquire an additional 150 nautical miles of continental shelf outside the 200 nautical miles of Maldives’ exclusive economic zone. The committee that prepared the documents required to do so was chaired by Dr. Munavvar.

The Indian government refused to provide the geographical information needed to submit the case to the UN, he said, adding that it was done with the help of experts from the University of Nice, an American university.

Speaking about the change in Maldives EEZ, Dr Munavvar said the continental shelf could only be claimed outside the EEZ if it was granted an exclusive economic zone.

Therefore, with the loss of a large part of Maldives’ EEZ with the decision of ITLOS, the application for the continental shelf outside Maldives’ EEZ has been closed, he said. Dr Munavvar said Maldives claim to the continental shelf in 2010 has been nullified due to the ruling.

“So we are not getting 4,000 square kilometers from a narrow direction. We are losing our continental shelf claim,” he said.

ITLOS supported the Maldives’ stance while concluding the dispute between the Maldives and Mauritius on the overlapping maritime boundary issue. The verdict favoured the Maldives in its claim, according 47232 sq kilometres – the larger portion of the overlapping area- to the Maldives.

At a press conference today, Dr Munavvar said there was a 30-day period to appeal the ITLOS decision, but the Maldivian government was not expected to appeal the case given their course of language.

He further added that even if the government will not appeal the case, they will see if there is a way to do so on behalf of the people of Maldives.

“We are looking into whether there is any room for appeal on behalf of the people. If there is any room, we will appeal,” he said.

Dr Munavvar said the government of President Solih is coming to an end very soon. He said the case of the maritime dispute would be resumed as soon as this regime comes to an end.

“Then they will say they don’t know how to start. They don’t know. The kids don’t know. But I’m saying very clearly there will be ways to look into the matter. They will look into the matter,” he said.

Criticizing the actions of the current administration, Dr Munavvar said he did not know whether the government would give away Hanimaadhoo or Uthuru Thilafalhu if President Solih got a second term.

“There are not only stupid people running the state today and these people are not sane people,” he said.

He further said that President Solih and his administration are not doing anything to protect the interests of the state and the direct enemies of the state are running the country today.

Former Attorney General Dr Mohamed Munavvar had previously stated that the Maldives stand on the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legal consequences of the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965 was changed by the influence of India. 

Speaking with local media in October 2022 following the revelation of governments sudden stand to vote in favor of Mauritius over the ICJ’s advisory, Dr. Munavvar told that India was to benefit most from the decision and if Chagos archipelago was given to Mauritius and if the Special Chamber of International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) favors for them in the dispute case concerning delimitation of the maritime boundary between Mauritius and Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

Dr. Munavvar also added that Mauritian population is mostly of Indian decent and that their current prime minister is also of Indian decent and based on the close relationship and influence of India over Mauritius that it was only logical to lean on the reasoning that India has influenced Maldives on the matter. 

He also added that India was becoming a strong regional power controlling most of the Indian Ocean and that they would be benefiting from the matter the most. Dr. Munavvar also added that India already has presence in the south and central regions of Maldives and if Chagos is handed over to Mauritius that India would control the entire Indian Ocean.

Chagos is in the most north of the Indian Ocean. If it falls under Mauritian sovereignty the whole Indian Ocean falls under their [India] power. Without their [India] consent, people can’t even cross the Indian Ocean.

Former Attorney General Dr. Mohamed Munavvar

He stated that since India would benefit most from the sudden change in Maldives stand on the matter, that he believes that it is the most probable case and has been done under their influence given the current political scenario of Maldives.

Dr. Munavvar had previously released a statement in 2021 rising concern on the current administration’s lackluster attitude towards the case lodged at the International Tribune for the Law of the Sea on delimiting the maritime boundary of the Maldives.

According to the claims made by the government of Mauritius, the maritime boundary of Maldives overlaps with that of the Chagos islands, which is under the jurisdiction of Mauritius following a ruling by the International Court of Justice which forced the British to handover the Chagos islands to Mauritius.

Dr. Mohamed Munavvar who holds a Master’s Degree in Law specializing on International Law stated that the government need to thoroughly analyze the situation due to the seriousness of the issue and that the case at the International Tribune for the Law of the Sea is an issue of national concern.

He noted that the issue concerns the people, especially the fisherman from the southern atolls as it directly affects their livelihood.

He also stated that two years had passed since the case was lodged and that the Maldives will be forced to present itself and defend its position on maintaining its current maritime boundary. Dr. Mohamed Munavva accused the current administration of trivializing the case. He continued on to state that as people who depend on the seas for an income, the people of Maldives should be alarmed and concerned by the current administration attitude towards the case.

Dr. Mohamed Munavvar also noted that the case will directly affect the livelihood of local fisherman and bring a change to the maritime boundary of the country. Due to this he called for the Attorney general Ibrahim Riffath, Foreign Ministry and the Defence Ministry to provide full disclosure on the subject to the People’s Parliament. He also urged for the government to refrain from doing anything which may result in the loss of maritime boundary of the country or a loss for the fisherman of Maldives.

The matter came to light after it was revealed that on 22 August 2022, the President of the Maldives sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Mauritius stating that the Maldives would vote in favor of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution entitled “Advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legal consequences of the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965”.

AGO released a statement following the public criticism stating that the dispute case concerning delimitation of the maritime boundary between Mauritius and Maldives in the Indian Ocean which is currently on going in the Special Chamber of International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) was a different matter and that the government agreed to vote in favor of Mauritius regarding the 2019 advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice.

However, the governments sudden change in the ICJ’s advisory opinion and the secrecy around the matter has lead to the government being heavily scrutinized from local political parties and the public.

Maldives had voted against the resolution in the 2019 vote at the UN along with the United States, Hungary, Israel and Australia voted against the resolution, while 56 countries abstained from the vote. 116 nations were in favor of the motion, which sets a six-month deadline for Britain to withdraw from the Chagos island chain and for the islands to be reunified with neighboring Mauritius.

Explaining the reason behind Maldives’ decision to vote no at the UN General Assembly in New York in 2019, Maldives Permanent Representative Thilmeeza Hussain told that without due process and clarity on the legal implications of the contested matter, Maldives is not in a position to support the resolution solely as a matter of decolonization. 

She had also told that for the Maldives, any uncertainty concerning the issue of Chagos archipelago will have serious implications for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and to the wider security of the Indian Ocean region and that it was for these reasons the Maldives voted no, on the resolution in 2019.