WHAT’S THE ISSUE AT HAND?
On May 4, Lebanon and Israel resumed a fifth round of indirect negotiations over their disputed maritime border through US mediation and under UN auspices. The previous rounds of talks have repeatedly broken down after the Lebanese delegation argued for expanding Lebanon’s southern provisional maritime boundaries by 1,430 square km, in addition to the previously disputed 860 square km zone. In the lead up to the fifth round of negotiations, the Lebanese delegation pressed its case for amending Decree No. 6433 in order to strengthen its bargaining position. What is Decree No. 6433?
In 2010, Lebanon had submitted to the UN the new coordinates for its proposed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), setting its southern boundary according to a 2009 delineation undertaken by the Lebanese army. The new demarcation adjusted the 2007 boundaries determined by the Lebanon-Cyprus agreement by introducing Line 23, which stretches from Ras Naqoura 131 km into the Mediterranean at an average angle of 291 degrees. A year later, the Israeli government adopted a delineation of its own EEZ, placing its border 17 km inside the proposed Lebanese zone, creating an overlapping area of 860 square km. On 1 October 2011, Lebanon passed Decree No. 6433, which defines the Lebanese maritime boundaries as comprising regional waters and an EEZ of 22,700 square km (following the 2009 demarcation). The decree, accompanied by a chart and lists of geographical coordinates, was subsequently deposited with the UN Secretary-General.
Why is decree No. 6433 problematic?
In 2011, one month and a half before the promulgation of Decree No. 6433, the Lebanese government commissioned the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO) to conduct an assessment of the 2009 demarcation. Their report proposed two potential lines demarcating the southern border of the EEZ: The first line gives Lebanon an additional 300 square kilometers, while the second adds 1,430 square kilometers to Lebanon’s 2009 maritime border, and has become known as Line 29. This was followed by a study conducted by the Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Navy Staff Colonel Mazen Basbous, between 2012-2013, which adopted Line 29, and was later supported by the findings of maritime borders international law expert, Najib Messihi.
Upon the initiation of indirect talks with Israel, the Lebanese delegation, supported by the Lebanese Army Command, decided that Lebanon’s claims on the negotiating table will be based on Line 29. Amending Decree No. 6433
Amending Decree No. 6433 became a hot topic in Lebanon, especially because out of the 10 EEZ blocks designated under Decree No. 42,
three are in the disputed area, which also contains part of the Karish gas field. The Lebanese leadership appeared divided on this issue, particularly over the institutional framework of amendments under a caretaker government. The Presidency of the Council of Ministers contended that under a caretaker government (which cannot, according to the Constitution, convene the Council of Ministers), the designated collective approval of the cabinet is replaced by the exceptional approval of the president, the caretaker prime minister, and the relevant ministers.
On April 12, caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, Minister of Defense Zeina Akar, and Minister of Public Works and Transport Michel Najjar all signed the draft decree, which was then officially referred to the Presidency of the Republic for approval.
In response, the Presidency General Directorate issued the following statement: “The General Directorate sent a letter to the General Secretariat of the Cabinet that included a draft decree amending Decree No. 6433, which requires a unanimous decision by the government, according to the opinion of the Legislation and Consultation Commission, even with a caretaker government, due to its importance and consequences.”
On April 20, the Justice and Administration Parliamentary Committee declared, through its chair, MP Georges Adwan, that it “holds the resigned government fully responsible for convening immediately and taking the decision of amending Decree No. 6433, under penalty of constitutional accountability for dereliction of national duty.”
As Lebanon entered the fifth round of negotiations, President Aoun instructed the delegation to engage in negotiations without preconditions, and to uphold international law as the basis for guaranteeing the continuation of the negotiations. WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
The Karish field is estimated to contain approximately 267 million barrels of oil equivalent (Mboe) of recoverable hydrocarbon reserves. Israel has licensed Energean to explore the field, and is expected to start production in the first quarter of 2022, using a floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel currently under construction in Singapore. These vessels are cost-effective and do not require a seabed pipeline, however, they cannot operate in disputed waters.
Amending Decree No. 6433, and registering the new EEZ coordinates with the UN, will render the zone where part of Karish is located a disputed area under international law. Consequently, this could jeopardize the investments undertaken by Energean in Karish, because it empowers Lebanon in any potential legal course of action it decides to take to protect its resources. BACKGROUND
In March 2010, a report by the US Geological Survey on the “Assessment of Undiscovered Oil and Gas Resources of the Levant Basin Province, Eastern Mediterranean” estimated the unexplored potential reserves in the Levant Basin at around 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas. With both Israel and Cyprus having designated their exclusive economic zone, this large quantity of reserves prompted the Lebanese government to define its EEZ, in an attempt to secure its offshore natural resources.
Basbous, M., and N. Massihi. (2021, March 17). “Maritime Boundaries Delimitation: The Legal and Technical Aspects of the Negotiations” [Panel Talk]. “Maritime Boundaries Delimitation: The Legal and Technical Aspects of the Negotiations,” Beirut, Lebanon. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HpdB7bLejk&t=1166s
Lakes, G. (2021, February 12). FEATURE: Lebanon eyes expansion of disputed maritime area with Israel | S&P Global Platts. Spglobal.Com.https://www.spglobal.com/platts/en/market-insights/latest-news/natural-gas/021221-feature-lebanon-eyes-expansion-of-disputed-maritime-area-with-israel
MTV. (2021, April 13). Presidency General Directorate: Draft decree amending Decree 6433 requires Cabinet’s decision. MTV Lebanon. https://www.mtv.com.lb/en/news/local/1171141/presidency-general-directorate--draft-decree-amending-decree-6433-requires-cabinet-s-decision
Sawt Beirut International. (2021, April 12). Diab signs draft decree for amending Decree No. 6433, refers it to President Aoun | Sawt Beirut International.https://english.sawtbeirut.com/lebanon/diab-signs-draft-decree-for-amending-decree-no-6433-refers-it-to-president-aoun/
Henderson, S. (2021, May 3). Lines in the Sea: The Israel-Lebanon Maritime Border Dispute. The Washington Institute.https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/lines-sea-israel-lebanon-maritime-border-dispute
United Nations. (2014, December). The Maritime Boundaries and Natural Resources of the Republic of Lebanon.
Karish Gas Field Development. (2020, September 4). NS Energy. https://www.nsenergybusiness.com/projects/karish-gas-field-development/
Decree No. 42, dated 19 January 2017, divides the Lebanese offshore and the EEZ into 10 designated blocks with defined coordinates.