When neighbors fight

To my last column on the current conflict between the Philippines and Taiwan, a country with whom, until recently, we have had only friendly relations, a reader from Canada has written a most thoughtful rejoinder.  He wishes to remain anonymous, but, with his permission, I will quote from the rich account he has shared of his experience as a former official of the Canadian department of fisheries in charge of enforcing maritime fishing boundaries.  His job entailed protecting his country’s fishery from poachers coming from other countries.

Like siblings quarreling over inheritance, sometimes the closest neighbors find themselves in conflict situations that threaten the fundamental assumptions of their relationship.  Such was the maritime dispute between Canada and its next-door neighbor and valuable ally, the United States, over the rich fishing ground known as Georges Bank on the eastern coast of the North American continent.

In the late ’70s, both countries began asserting the metes and bounds of their respective exclusive economic zones.  It was inevitable that these would overlap.  A joint management and development of the resources of the disputed waters, the most logical recourse for nations that regard each other as allies, was seriously considered.  But the negotiations failed.  The two countries thus agreed to submit the issue for arbitration by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, using as parameters the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In 1984, after five years of hearings, the ICJ laid down the maritime boundaries across the Gulf of Maine, assigning to the United States the bulk of the disputed territorial waters.  By chance, the much smaller portion of Georges Bank that Canada got encompassed nearly the entire ground of the valuable scallop fishery.  The United States tried to secure a share of this rich resource by proposing joint management of the Canadian part, but Canada did not flinch: It was its turn to say no.  The United States next proposed the creation of a buffer zone.  Canada countered by proposing that each country instead carve its buffer zone from its own side of the boundary.

Clearly, while the governments of both countries remained on good terms, and never gave up exploring areas of cooperation, the same goodwill could not always be assumed with regard to the fishing communities on both sides of the demarcation line.  Indeed, each side expected their respective governments to vigilantly protect their territory from intruders and poachers.  This was the context in which the incident that our reader from Canada narrates took place.

“Prior to this incident the Canadian government had decided to arm its patrol vessels and enforcement staff.  I was personally opposed to this but politics won the day and we armed our staff… We did institute operational procedures for the use of force which required not only extensive training for our staff but [also] an escalation of force procedure that required higher levels of approval before using lethal force.  The actual firing on a vessel required the approval of a member of parliament responsible for fisheries.  The first level, firing a warning shot across the bow, required a deputy minister’s approval.”

One may appreciate the complexity of this setup, and the sensitivities that inform it, by imagining a patrol boat out in the North Atlantic that has to communicate nearly every move it makes to an operations room in Ottawa, which in turn has to secure approvals from responsible officials in government, before even the first warning shot can be fired.

“When I got the call from the patrol boat captain, he was in hot pursuit of a US fishing vessel that was caught in the zone but refused to heave to and allow a boarding party to board his vessel.  They turned and ran for the US area.  We were in touch with US authorities and they agreed to stay back and observe until the fishing vessel actually entered their 3-mile coastal zone.

“I relayed the permission for our patrol vessel to fire warning shots, which they did, but to no avail.  The fishing boat tried to ram the patrol boat and did in fact hit it a glancing blow with no serious damage resulting.  Canadian authorities would not approve the actual firing on the vessel, however, so it escaped into the US coastal zone.  The US coast guard apprehended it and did its own investigation with our cooperation.  I don’t recall the actual outcome, however, although I do recall charges were laid in the US court and our enforcement staff gave evidence in that trial.”

Some in the US media found it objectionable that the Canadian patrol boat was actually poised to fire on the fleeing American fishing boat.  But, the former Canadian enforcer thinks otherwise.  “US authorities have fired upon and disabled vessels from other countries in the past and will do so again. I personally would have preferred we did not arm our vessels, but having taken the decision to do so, it would be irresponsible not to use the weapons and rely on the goodwill of others to enforce our laws.”

So central indeed is sovereignty to a people’s self-image that nations have gone to war to erase any doubt about their readiness to uphold it when it is threatened. But, precisely because war is costly and no nation should court one, governments have the duty to avoid provocative language, and to be circumspect in the use of lethal force.  The Canadian example shows how this form of restraint can be built into a government’s operational responses.  But, even more important, it illustrates the need to build reservoirs of goodwill between nations that can drown the most bellicose rhetoric from their leaders.