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The Contiguous Zone as Ocean Frontier

Packing up my computer to head out the door en route to the ‘Ocean Frontiers’ workshop being held in Toronto later this week, I made one last news check and stumbled upon this piece in The New York Times about a niche group of trans-Mediterranean asylum seekers who travel in style, paying a premium above the usual smuggling charge to travel on relatively well appointed private boats from Turkey to Italy. Although the journalist is careful to note that this is not the usual migrant experience, the article, with its seeming identification of first-class asylum seekers (the modern equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s perjorative ‘welfare queen’?) is politically problematic. But that’s not what piqued my interest.

What caught my eye was that this article has to be one of the few pieces of maritime journalism where the contiguous zone plays a central role:

“To avoid routine checks, the sailors skillfully navigate what is known as the ‘contiguous zone,’ the continuous maritime area extending beyond any country’s territorial waters.”

The contiguous zone is probably the most obscure of the ocean divisions enshrined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Only one article of UNCLOS (Article 33) is devoted to the contiguous zone, where it is defined as the area of the ocean out to 24 nautical miles from the coastline. In the contiguous zone, a State has the right to “prevent infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations within its territory or territorial sea” and punish such infringements when they do occur within the State’s territory or territorial sea. In other words, it’s an area where coastal states can police in order to prevent crimes from occurring in their territorial waters. However, if a crime occurs in the contiguous zone, then high seas rules apply. Its designation as a specialized policing zone is reaffirmed by the fact that almost all of the references to it, outside Article 33, are in Article 111, the article on the right of hot pursuit.

In short, the contiguous zone is a classic frontier zone, a space that is defined both by its lawlessness and by the reckless, unchecked power of the Law. It is both a space of exception – an “outside” space that reminds one of the limits of sovereign authority – and one that affirms the potential for control and order. It is, as it were, a space of both limits and opportunity. And, of course, like frontiers everywhere, it is an ideal space for smugglers, including the people smugglers profiled in the New York Times article.

I’m not sure that this is precisely what the ‘Ocean Frontiers’ workshop organisers had in mind when they decided to revolve the workshop around the concept of the ocean frontier: their focus is less on the liminal legalities of maritime border zones and more on the emergent marine frontiers of resource extraction opportunities and the ways in which “principles of socio-economic equity and ecological sustainability [have] influenced the regulatory context surrounding ocean resources [in these frontiers].” Indeed, I suspect that much of my role at the workshop will be to draw out connections between, on the one hand, the economic/resource ‘frontier’ (and the ethical and environmental implications of its ‘conquest’) and, on the other hand, the spatial legal ‘frontiers’ of political geography. That’s not meant as a critique at all. In fact an exciting ‘frontier’ of frontier studies (or, more broadly, border studies) is precisely the points at which these frontiers intersect. Thus, I’m looking forward to an exciting workshop.

And for anyone reading this who’s in Toronto, there will be a public event associated with the workshop this Wednesday at 5pm. All are welcome!

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One comment on “The Contiguous Zone as Ocean Frontier

  1. these non-legal spaces were key in the development of pirate radio. the origins of radio hauraki in NZ is a good example.

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