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  • Titill er á ensku The Unnatural Life Cycle of Natural Prolongation in the Delimitation of the Continental Shelf
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    With seventy percent of the earth's surface covered by the sea, it comes as no surprise that the submarine natural resources are abundant and disputes frequently arise between the States coveting them. While the prospect of resource extraction in the submerged areas far from a State's coast was recognized long ago, it was not until recently that rapid technological advances have made these resources viably extractable and revealed attractive prospects for coastal States, not least when the area is multiple in size to their land territory. However, although the sovereign rights of the coastal State over the continental shelf exist ipso facto and ab initio, the delimitation of the continental shelf between neighbouring States is generally a precondition for the initiation of resource extraction; potential investors will shy away from regions where boundaries are not agreed.
    The entitlement and delimitation of the continental shelf are governed by the provisions of articles 76 and 83 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. While a coastal State is automatically entitled to a continental shelf of 200 nautical miles (hereinafter “nm”), as a consequence of the advent of the exclusive economic zone, article 76, paragraph 1, determines natural prolongation as a prerequisite for claiming a continental shelf beyond 200 nm. Since the introduction of the notion in 1969, its significance as a geological and geomorphological term has been gradually emaciated, yet with commentators and jurists alike alluding to its continued significance in the regime of the continental shelf beyond 200 nm. The recent decision in the Bay of Bengal Case did not live up to these expectations, instead extending the trend to the area beyond 200 nm.
    Ordinarily staid, commentators have used the most colourful language in describing the status of the concept natural prolongation. With analogies to a living being, its treatment has been described with a flair for the dramatic – “mortal blow”, “death” and “death throes”. This author has chosen to follow this fiction with the title of this essay, because in a sense natural prolongation has had an unnatural life cycle. In its infancy and early adolescence there were high hopes for its future, which were however dashed in midlife and killed off in the jurisprudence relating to the continental shelf within 200 nm and then, like in a bad soap opera, the notion was killed off for the second time in the first case concerning the delimitation of the continental shelf beyond 200 nm – and to date the only one addressing natural prolongation. This essay will continue along these lines to see whether after the recent decision in the Bay of Bengal Case, there is any hope that the concept can be “resuscitated”, “brought back from the dead”, or given an “after-life”.
    This essay will begin in Chapter two by briefly outlining the dispute settlement framework laid down in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Chapter three will describe the various maritime zones and the methods and approaches developed for their delimitation in the event of overlapping claims. The jurisprudence as concerns the continental shelf beyond 200 nm will be illustrated in Chapter four. The notion of natural prolongation is the topic of Chapter five, where its history will be traced before going on to describe in detail arguments for its significance in recent jurisprudence. The Chapter goes on to raise several critical aspects in said jurisprudence and speculations about its future implications. Chapter six concludes that there are still hopes of resuscitating natural prolongation in the geological and geomorphological sense and the trend to emaciate its significance may yet be stopped and reversed.

  • 4.9.2015

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