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Guyana-Suriname Border Issue – from the 1960s to 2004
By Odeen Ishmael PhD
GuyanaJournal
March 2006


Suriname claims New River Triangle

In June 1962, the Dutch Government made their first official claim to ownership of the New River Triangle while conceding to Britain that the thalweg of the Corentyne River formed the boundary between Suriname and British Guiana. This claim to Guyana's territory was, of course, unacceptable to the British but with the anticipated granting of independence to Guyana the Dutch redoubled their efforts to have the boundary settled on their terms. However, a conference arranged for 1962 between the Dutch and British Governments, (colonial rulers of Guyana and Suriname), to further discuss the issue failed to make any progress.

Significantly, this claim by Suriname to Guyana’s New River Triangle coincided with the renewal of the Venezuelan claim to Guyana’s territory west of the Essequibo River.

From then, the Suriname Government seized every opportunity to assert its claim to the New River Triangle. That Government set up an advisory commission and by decree unilaterally changed the name of the New River to that of the "Upper Corentyne" on maps of Suriname and showing the Triangle as part of Suriname.

In 1964, while the wharf at Springlands on the Guyana side of the Corentyne was undergoing repairs, Suriname again attempted to claim rights in the area. It decreed that all users of the river for certain purposes should not do so unless they held valid licenses from the Nickerie (Suriname) authorities. This issue was discussed between Guyana’s Prime Minister Forbes Burnham and Suriname’s Minister-President Johann Pengel when they held informal discussions in January 1966. They had hoped to convene a conference before Guyana's Independence in May 1966, but this did not materialize.

As the date for Guyana's independence drew near, Pengel intensified these efforts and in April 1966 stated that "in view of the forthcoming independence of British Guiana, the Suriname Government wishes the British to make it clear when sovereignty is transferred that the frontier is disputed."

In April 1966, at his request, the Netherlands Foreign Minister, Dr. Luns, discussed the claim with Lord Walston, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, in the presence of Sir Lionel Luckhoo, the Guyana representative to that meeting. Luns said that "Suriname had shown great restraint in not exercising acts of sovereignty in the New River Triangle", and this view was endorsed by Dr. Einaar, Minister Plenipotentiary of Suriname in The Hague, who was also present. In response, Lord Walston stated that "on the New River Triangle Her Majesty's Government maintain very firmly their sovereignty over the territory of British Guiana as defined by its present frontier."

One month later Guyana became independent having as its sovereignty and boundaries those which Britain had exercised undisturbed for over a century.

Guyana ejects Suriname survey team

One month after Guyana became independent, officials of Suriname and Guyana met in London to discuss the Surinamese claim. There was a free and frank exchange of views, and the Dutch offered to host a follow-up meeting in The Hague. That meeting never occurred, but early in the following year, Pengel visited Guyana and held discussions with Burnham on various matters, including the border issue.

In an effort to assert its claim, the Suriname Government in December 1967 sent a land survey party into the New River Triangle. They were confronted by members of the Guyana Police Force who asked the team to leave. The Suriname authorities immediately protested the action as a grave breach of their sovereignty and asked the Netherlands Government through their Ambassador in London to request Sir Lionel Luckhoo, Guyana's High Commissioner, to provide a clarification at the earliest possible time. In reply, Luckhoo informed the Dutch Ambassador that no permission had been granted to the Government of Suriname to carry out any survey in the area and, therefore, its presence was illegal and a violation of Guyana's territorial integrity. In the circumstances, Luckhoo explained, the Guyana police had acted with commendable restraint.

Following this incident, an understanding was reached between the Governments of Guyana and Suriname that the latter would refrain from encroaching on Guyana's territory.

In February 1968, the Guyana’s Minister of State, Shridath Ramphal, addressing an audience in New Amsterdam, responded firmly to Surinamese statements on their claim:

“By every token of history, custom, usage, prescription and recognition, indeed by every relevant criterion of international law, Guyana's title to the New River Triangle is unassailable. It cannot now be competent for the Netherlands to raise a claim to the area when over the years they have acknowledged the Kutari as the boundary in the Notes and letters of their diplomats, in the speeches of their Ministers in their own Parliament, in their proposals for the conclusion of a Boundary Treaty, in their concurrence in the fixing of the common international boundary between Guyana, Suriname and Brazil, and in the absence of any exercise of jurisdiction over the area.”

GDF ejects Surinamese military from New River Triangle

Throughout 1968, neither the Dutch nor the Surinamese showed any interest in holding talks on the border issue. On 14 September 14, 1968, Burnham wrote to Pengel expressing Guyana's desire to discuss fully the settlement of all issues between the two countries but he received no reply.

But while Guyana was showing interest in discussing the border issue, Suriname was carrying out a clandestine occupation of the New River triangle in clear breach of the understanding arrived at in 1967. On 19 August 1969, a Guyana Defence Force (GDF) patrol found an unauthorized camp and a partially completed airstrip west of the Corentyne River in the New River triangle area. As the Guyanese soldiers moved into the camp-site, a number of uniformed Surinamese opened fire on them. But the Guyanese soldiers repelled the Surinamese who abandoned the camp and fled in the direction of the Suriname border.

The camp built by Suriname's armed forces on Guyana's territory was constructed as a military installation. It had underground bunkers especially constructed to protect against shell and mortar attacks and was equipped with towers and machine-gun emplacements. Maps left by the Surinamese revealed a plan to occupy the entire New River area with a series of military camps, with the camp serving as a base and supply headquarters. Judging from the personal effects and accommodation facilities left at the camp, it was estimated that there were between 50 to 55 men occupying it. They left behind a Caterpillar bulldozer, a jeep, an electric power plant, a mechanical water pump, power driven handsaws, a large refrigerator and well-stocked kitchens.

Two days later, Prime Minister Burnham informed the Guyana National Assembly that strong protests were sent to the Governments of the Netherlands and Suriname. He also announced that the GDF would remain in the New River triangle to prevent any further incursions. In concluding his statement he said: “There can be no doubt that the New River Triangle is part of the territory of Guyana and has been in our possession from time immemorial. This Government is pledged to maintain traditional friendly relations with our neighbors, including Suriname, and at the same time, our country's territorial integrity.”

Shortly after, the GDF established a permanent military outpost, named Camp Jaguar, in the New River triangle. Around the same period, Guyana opened a Consulate General in Paramaribo.

The situation became more cordial the following year during which Burnham and the new Prime Minister of Suriname Jules Sedney met in Port-of-Spain, Georgetown and Paramaribo. Much of their discussions related to follow-up action after the New Triangle area incident. They also agreed on the establishment of the Guyana-Suriname commission responsible for improving co-operation in economic, social and cultural areas. Relations continued to show improvements even though from time to time Guyana complained to the Surinamese authorities over the manner in which they treated Guyanese arrested in their territory.

More tensions

Suriname became independent in November 1975 and Guyana immediately established diplomatic relations with the new sovereign nation. For a while a state of friendliness existed. But the situation took a downward turn in 1978 when tensions rose in the two countries' capitals over Guyana's action to implement the provisions of the Guyana Maritime Act on fishing in its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. One Suriname-owned trawler and six other foreign trawlers based in Suriname were arrested in Guyana's waters and impounded. Suriname immediately retaliated by refusing to grant licenses to Guyanese fishermen, loggers and floating-shops operating in Suriname. Surinamese police also detained 10 Guyanese balata bleeders who were surveying balata trees along the Corentyne River. While they were later released, their equipment was not returned.

As a result of these incidents, Guyana's Foreign Minister Rashleigh Jackson held discussions with his Suriname counterpart to resolve these problems.

Cooperation

The following year saw a turn towards cooperation when Burnham and Suriname's Prime Minister Henck Aaron held three meetings in Barbados, Georgetown and Paramaribo. At these meetings they reached agreements in the fields of economic and technical cooperation, and decided that ministers of both countries would meet to deal with specific aspects of bilateral cooperation. They also signed two agreements – one on fishery and another on cultural and scientific co-operation – and examined proposals for the operation of a jointly owned car-ferry service on the Corentyne River.

For the next few years, the situation remained low-key with the disagreements relating mainly to the arrest of Guyanese fishing boats and their crews on the Corentyne River. In most cases, diplomatic intervention by Guyana led the release of the fishermen and their vessels.

Oil concessions unopposed by Suriname

Meanwhile, Guyana had been granting oil exploration concessions to foreign companies within the maritime boundaries it claimed. One of these companies, Royal Dutch Shell carried out drilling in 1974 without any protest from Suriname. Then in 1981, another company, Seagull-Dennison, licensed by Guyana carried out test drilling in the same area without any Surinamese protest. Another company, LASMO Oil in 1989 carried out seismic surveys in the area without any opposition. Licenses granted to CGX Resources Ltd. in 1998 and to Esso in 1999 also were unopposed by Suriname.

On the other hand, Guyana protested when International Petroleum Exploration Ltd. in 1989 expressed interest in obtaining an offshore license to conduct exploration in the area claimed by Guyana. In the end no agreement was reached between the Suriname Government and this company.

Memorandum of Understanding

A new development in bilateral relations developed in 1989 when Suriname’s President Ramsaywak Shankar paid a state visit to Guyana. He and Desmond Hoyte, then President of Guyana, agreed to establish National Border Commissions and the Guyana-Suriname Council aimed at improving cooperation in various sectors. They also discussed measures to activate a trade agreement signed between the two countries some time before. Later that year, Hoyte paid an official return visit to Suriname, and as a result of discussions, the two Presidents agreed on a trade mission from Suriname to visit Guyana.

With respect to the maritime boundary between the two countries, both presidents agreed that pending settlement of the border question, the authorities responsible for petroleum development in both countries should agree that the area of the north eastern and north western seaward boundaries, that is, the disputed maritime area, could be jointly utilized by the two countries. This agreement reached by both Presidents developed into the Memorandum of Understanding of 1991 which was subsequently confirmed in the Agreed Minutes prepared by the two Foreign Ministers, Rashleigh Jackson of Guyana and Edwin Sedoc of Suriname.

The Memorandum of Understanding was agreed upon in February 1991 by the two countries and signed by Dr. Cedric Grant, Ambassador and Special Adviser to the President of Guyana, and Dr. John Kolader, Ambassador of Suriname to Guyana. It provided for the exploitation of petroleum resources in the "Area of Overlap" for the benefit of both countries pending a resolution of the maritime border dispute. However, this agreement was never ratified by the Surinamese Parliament.

With the new PPP-Civic Government taking power in October 1992, there was an uninterrupted flow in bilateral relations. During a state visit to Suriname in 1994 by President Cheddi Jagan, the two Governments agreed that the meetings of the National Border Commissions and the Guyana-Suriname Cooperation Council, which had earlier been established, would be resuscitated to facilitate timely consultations and to establish a basis for resolution of the dispute. But in spite of several initiatives from Guyana, the meetings of the Commissions were not held.

Relations continued to improve and Guyana firmly supported in 1995 the entry of Suriname as a full member of CARICOM. Three years later, the Guyana-Suriname Ferry, jointly operated by both countries and funded by the European Union, began operation.

The CGX oil rig incident

The situation took a downward on June 3, 2000 when, two Suriname gunboats forced an oil rig operated by CGX Resources to remove from an area of Guyana's exclusive economic zone on the Atlantic continental shelf near to the Suriname maritime border. The Suriname government claimed that the oil rig, which was at the time preparing to start drilling operations, was in Surinamese territorial waters.

Guyana issued a strong protest but Suriname insisted that the rig was operating in its territorial waters. In the effort to resolve the situation in the area, the two Governments convened meetings in Port of Spain, Georgetown and Paramaribo during June 2000, and also at the Caricom Heads of Government meeting in St. Lucia in early July 2000, but no solution was reached. At these meetings, Guyana, adopting a firm but flexible approach based in friendship, cooperation and mutual respect, made the following proposals:

(i) The two sides should return to the spirit of the Hoyte/Shankar Agreement, the Jackson/Sedoc Agreed Minutes and the Grant/Kolader Memorandum of Understanding which together created the environment and the prospects not only for a peaceful resolution to a potential area for problems but also for the joint utilization of the resources in the area of dispute for the benefit of both the Surinamese and the Guyanese people.

(ii) Both Governments should place the settlement of the maritime border dispute on the fast track.

(iii) Joint meetings of the Guyana-Suriname National Border Commissions and the Guyana/Suriname Cooperation Council must be reactivated.

(iv) Both countries should designate the disputed maritime area as a Special Zone for Sustainable Development to be jointly managed by a Guyana-Suriname Mixed Authority to jointly manage and exploit the resources in the area for the mutual benefit of the two countries pending the settlement of the maritime boundary by peaceful means. Both Governments might wish to include representatives of regional or international institutions to serve on the Authority.

Guyana moves to arbitration

The Suriname side was not willing to agree to these proposals and the situation remained deadlocked. Eventually, CGX moved its operation on shore to prospect for oil while still awaiting a resolution of this issue.

This situation remained unresolved and, finally, on 24 February 2004, Guyana acting under the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, filed a petition to the Convention’s arbitration tribunal to make a delimitation of the maritime border with Suriname. Both countries have presented their written cases to the tribunal, and it is hoped that the final decision will end the difference between the two states and enable them to develop the resources in their respective maritime areas.

Dr. Odeen Ishmael, trained as a Geographer, has published two books on education, and one on Amerindian legends of Guyana in addition to numerous articles in newspaper, magazines and journals. He is the Guyana Ambassador in Venezuela.

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