On Thursday Venezuelan officers boarded the U.S.-operated, Malaysia-owned survey vessel Teknik Perdana for “carrying out illegal activities.” The Venezuelan navy escorted the vessel into port on Margarita Island, where the ship and crew were told they would remain detained pending an investigation. The ship ran afoul of a dispute between Venezuela it’s smaller neighbor Guyana over waters off the coast of an area known as Esequiba. According to the BBC, Venezuela has claimed the Esequiba region (and about 2/3rds of the whole of Guyana) since Guyana was a British colony in the 19th Century. UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which the U.S. is not a signatory but follows due to its force as accepted customary law, formalizes Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) that regulates most economic activity, typically drawn out 200nm from the coastal baseline of a nation’s territory, as well as the rights to resources further out in the continental shelf’s seabed. Thus as far as the law is usually* concerned, who owns the land owns the sea, and therefore much of the interest over otherwise marginal islands elsewhere. Fortunately for the owners and crew of the Teknik Perdana, Venezuela released vessel on Tuesday.
If this story has a happy ending it is that Venezuela and Guyana said in August that they would seek help from the UN to solve their squabble, and this incident may act as further impetus. This doesn’t mean claimants always abide by the rulings (see neighboring Colombia’s reaction over its dispute with Nicaragua), but they at least tend to keep things peaceful.
*History can also play a large role.
LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.