Overlapping continental shelves

In several parts of the Barents and Norwegian Seas, various coastal countries are making overlapping claims over the size and limits of their continental shelves. Assuming that each state can prove its case, it is far from clear how the judges of the ICJ will resolve this dispute. The same is equally true of areas of the far north into which the 'Arctic Five' could claim, or already have claimed, that their continental shelves extend. There are some areas close to the North Pole where the claims made by Russia, Canada and Denmark might potentially all overlap.

There is no real legal guidance on this point since the 1982 Convention only vaguely states that these disputes should be decided 'by agreement on the basis of international law . . . in order to achieve an equitable solution'.50 And although the ICJ has passed judgement on three overlapping continental shelf disputes since its inception in 1946, each case was decided well before the Convention was drawn up and agreed upon.51

Claimant countries might be able to buttress their case by arguing that they have some form of 'historic title' to the disputed region. The ICJ was sceptical of this kind of argument in one of the three cases it adjudicated, but nonetheless acknowledged that history should be a factor in resolving overlapping continental shelf claims and that geology alone was not likely to offer a well-defined boundary. In that case Tunisia had an 80-year historical practice of fishing in the contested area and this gave it some 'historic title' to the contested region.52

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