Fishermen at fault | By Khalid Saleem

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Fishermen at fault

NEWSPAPERS a long time ago carried an item relating to the arrest by Indian navy of ten Pakistani fishermen ‘for entering disputed water territory’ in the Arabian Sea between the two countries.

This humanitarian issue has been neglected for so long and deserves serious attention of the two governments.

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. ’ This is not strictly accurate and needs to be looked at. 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 a few attempts have been made to ferret out the reason for why this should happen in the first place.

The main reason happens to be that the two neighbouring states 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 boundaries.

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’.

Several years 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 yet another fait accompli that would only serve to further complicate the reportedly on-going 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 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 Kachch and the Sind province of the then ‘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 Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in terms of the International Law of the Sea Convention.

As things stand, Sir Creek region could very well qualify for the Guinness Book of Records as the most surveyed piece of territory ever.

Shortly after the wretched composite dialogue between India and Pakistan commenced years ago and the nauseating cycle of surveys was set in motion.

It has since been the earnest hope of all right-thinking persons that the Sir Creek squabble would be expeditiously settled if only to set the ball rolling.

This, regrettably, has not happened. 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 de-link 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 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.

— The writer is a former Ambassador and former Assistant Secretary General of OIC.