The new Act brings legislation in line with the modern systems of governance today, replacing outdated Acts, many of which were passed before the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) came into force in 1994 and its ratification by the Cook Islands the following year.
Ministry of Marine Resources secretary Ben Ponia says this single Act will provide reference boundaries for over a dozen laws including marine, environment, minerals, shipping, aviation, customs, tax and pollution.
Tabled before the House in July 2017, the Act sets out in provisions in five parts for internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf of the Cook Islands as maritime zones.
“This streamlined Bill will ensure our maritime boundaries are consistent with the UNCLOS, reflect the modern arms of Government that we have today and the advancements of technology that was not available at the time,” Prime Minister and Minister of Marine Resources, Henry Puna, told Parliament this week.
The zones reflect the boundaries set under the UNCLOS, the international agreement that resulted from the third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea from 1973-1982.
The Law of the Sea Convention defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world’s oceans.
Under the Act, internal waters refer to the area extending from land to reef, and the territorial sea is a zone extending outward 12 nautical miles from the reefs of each island.
The contiguous zone extends a further 12 nm from the boundary of the territorial seas zone and serves as a buffer zone for health, customs and quarantine laws, allowing for prevention and punishment of infringement to these laws.
The EEZ includes our territorial seas and extends 200 nautical miles from the coast, where the Cook Islands has sovereign rights to the marine resources and responsibilities for environmental protection.
The new Act includes the limits to the Continental Shelf which reflects the boundaries of the EEZ and enables the Cook Islands to extend its continental shelf based on the perimeter of the Manihiki Plateau.
In his statements on the Bill, PM Puna said the Cook Islands are historically one of the most active players in the region on maritime boundaries.
The Cook Islands signed UNCLOS on the day it was adopted on December 10, 1982, and was the second nation in the Pacific region to declare its outer EEZ limits.
Puna acknowledged the efforts of past leaders, notably the nation’s first Premier Albert Henry, in ensuring the Cook Islands’ rights under the UN Law of the Sea
“Papa Arapati was one of the Pacific Island leaders from newly independent states who was active in the (UNCLOS) negotiations. In 1974 Papa Arapati made a poignant plea to the UN in Caracas, Venezuela, where he proposed that even the smallest of island states and not just the large developed states should be entitled to a 200 nautical mile boundary, in order to support their aspirations for economic independence and quest for full statehood,” said Puna in Parliament.
He added that the 1974 statement symbolised the forward-looking vision and boldness that has come to characterise the Cook Islands and he asked that the statement be circulated to the Members of the House.
In his closing statement, Puna joined other MPs in acknowledging the efforts of former Prime Minister, the late Dr Terepai Maoate, who in 2009 led the initial application to the UN to extend the Cook Islands continental shelf.
Puna reminded Parliament that government remained steadfast in its commitment to pursue its application for an extension of the continental shelf that will provide jurisdiction over a further 400,000 square kilometres of ocean space.
He recalled the 2012 Forum Leaders meeting where the Cook Islands hosted the historic signing of eight maritime treaty boundaries between Pacific Islands countries.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was present and en route to Japan to deal with the South China Seas maritime boundary crisis and paid homage to the manner in which the Pacific was able to peacefully resolve its maritime borders.
The Cook Islands signed its final outstanding maritime boundary with Kiribati at the Forum meeting.
In addition to the work on the bill, Puna paid tribute to the set of boundaries being adopted under the Marae Moana Act 2017, including the 50 nautical mile buffer zones for fishing around each island.
“Once again, following in the footsteps of Papa Arapati and Dr Maoate, the Cook Islands has adopted its own bold and visionary declaration to the international community by giving notice of our intentions to raise the bar within our 200 nautical mile EEZ.”