Estonian foreign ministry wants to extend controlled maritime area

The border patrol ship 'General Kurvits'.
The border patrol ship 'General Kurvits'. Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

Last week, following a proposal from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government cabinet discussed the potential establishment of a contiguous zone in Estonia's maritime area. Government ministries were instructed to formulate their positions on the issue within a month. The contiguous zone would allow Estonia to enforce its national laws over a larger maritime area.

The establishment of a contiguous zone in Estonia's maritime area would enable the enforcement of Estonian legislation at a distance of up to 24 nautical miles from the baseline of the country's territorial sea. The zone would therefore have a positive impact on Estonia's national security, as well as its ability to protect the environment and archaeological and historical objects within its territorial sea, said Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) in a press release.

"A contiguous zone is a maritime area adjacent to the territorial sea, which can be established by national law, and where the coastal state has the right to both control and punish violations of its own legislation," Alexander Lott, research fellow at the Norwegian Center for the Law of the Sea (NCLOS) and lecturer in administrative law at the University of Tartu, explained to ERR.

"The establishment of a contiguous zone is important for economic as well as security and heritage interests," he added.

Lott explained, that the state's right to exercise legal powers in the contiguous zone extends to economic legislation, such as customs and taxation, as well as those related to sanitation and immigration. The state would also be able to control the removal of archeological and historical objects found on the seabed within the zone, which would be deemed unlawful without its consent.

Kristi Land, director of the international law department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, that the contiguous zone would be an additional maritime area falling under the control of the Republic of Estonia, which extends beyond the country's territorial sea.

"Having reviewed the various options that the (United Nations) Convention on the Law of the Sea still offers to coastal states, we found, that in the current security situation, and in a situation where we, as a coastal state, want to have more control over the Baltic Sea, the establishment of a contiguous zone would allow Estonia to exercise control over the observance of its legal norms concerning customs and tax issues, immigration issues and sanitation, as well as the protection of archaeological objects," Land said.

Offenders can be tracked further

Lott explained, that the establishment of a contiguous zone would extend the rights of the Estonian authorities to pursue those who violate customs, tax, immigration, heritage protection and sanitary laws beyond the country's territorial sea.

"If a coastal state has established a contiguous zone, it may pursue a vessel in a situation where it has already left (that state's) territorial sea within its 12 nautical mile contiguous zone," said Lott.

"And this right of pursuit can extend as far as the exclusive economic zone of another state or, metaphorically speaking, across state borders," he explained.

Lott also pointed out, that the Estonia's current Police and Border Guard Act unreasonably restricts the right to pursue offenders who cross the Estonian (maritime) border.

Implementation of sanctions also affected

Asked whether the main motivation behind the desire to establish the contiguous zone was to better enable the implementation of sanctions against Russia, as well as catch those who were violating them, a spokesperson for the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs answered in the negative.

However, Alexander Lott suggested that, in fact, this could be one of the reasons behind the aim to create the zone.

"Absolutely. The introduction of such measures is primarily what the contiguous zone is for. Perhaps (for) vessels that somehow violate the customs or fiscal laws of the coastal state. That's where (having) a contiguous zone is the most effective way to bring them to justice," said Lott.

Zone's width would vary

Both Lott and Land explained, that Estonia and Finland have established their territorial sea boundaries in the Gulf of Finland, in a way that allows for a three-nautical-mile-wide free navigable area on either side of the gulf's central line.

While under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a contiguous zone could extend up to 12 nautical miles from the outer limit of a state's territorial sea, that would not be possible in the Gulf of Finland. Therefore, the zone's size would need to be limited to the center line of the gulf. That is, a maximum of three nautical miles from the outer limit of the Estonian territorial sea.

Further west however, the zone could extend up to 24 nautical miles from the baseline of Estonia's territorial sea.

Similar move by Finland would be welcomed

Unlike Sweden, Denmark and Germany, other than a narrow two-nautical-mile extension narrowly to its customs area, Finland has not established a contiguous zone of its own. Lott said, that while Estonia cannot influence Finland to establish its own contiguous zone, it would be mutually beneficial if it did.

"How Finland decides to act is, of course, Finland's sovereign decision and Estonia has no influence on it. But it would certainly be very welcome if Finland and Estonia decided to establish a contiguous zone together in the framework of cross-border cooperation," Lott said. "Personally, I cannot see any negative consequences for Finland. Instead, only positive ones - in terms of economic interests, immigration, healthcare and also heritage protection," he added.

Lott also explained, that under international law, Estonia is not required to coordinate with Finland before establishing a contiguous zone.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs additionally pointed out, that the establishment of the contiguous zone would not affect Estonia's state borders.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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