Academic journal article Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law

Geographical Expertise in International Boundary Cases

Academic journal article Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law

Geographical Expertise in International Boundary Cases

Article excerpt


International boundaries may fundamentally be political and legal constructs, but they run through real physical and human landscapes. Effective boundary-making and dispute resolution require an understanding of, and sensitivity to, those landscapes.

In his introduction to the American Society of International Law's International Maritime Boundaries, Professor Jonathan Charney wrote that "in virtually all situations coastal geography is primary" in the determination of the equitable division of maritime space. Nearly all maritime boundary disputes involve debate about geographical concepts such as coastline configuration, relative coastline length, the relevant area, the low-water line, and the median line.

Many land boundary and territorial sovereignty disputes arise because the initial (and, in some cases, only) delimitation of the boundary was based on poor geographical information. As British Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury infamously noted in 1890, European imperial powers were all too often "engaged in drawing lines on maps where no white man's foot ever trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew where the mountains and rivers and lakes were." (1) Such uncertainty often led to ambiguous boundary descriptions and sometimes wildly inaccurate mapping.

Even when the boundary was surveyed on the ground following its initial delimitation, limited time, resources, and (especially) mapping technology often led to boundary maps which may look impressive to the untrained eye, but which present major challenges when it comes to locating the boundary on the ground. Sometimes the core task of a court or tribunal is the interpretation of such maps, which inevitably requires the assessment of a wide range of other geographic information in the form of maps, remotely sensed imagery, reports of explorers and travelers, and field survey data.

Even when maps are not at the heart of a case, they are almost certainly going to be presented as evidence of title and/or a particular boundary alignment, often in large numbers, and it is vital that the legal team understand the technical strengths and weaknesses of all cartographic evidence. Courts and tribunals may be wary of non-treaty maps as evidence of title, but because boundaries need to be visualized geographically, maps can and do have an impact on the way that cases are perceived.

In short, boundary dispute resolution invariably involves the analysis and interpretation of a wide range of often-complex geographic information. States submitting a boundary dispute to third-party adjudication--and those responsible for determining the course of the boundary--therefore need to ensure that they have appropriate geographical expertise at their disposal.


The skills required to assist in the interpretation and presentation of the geographical aspects of a dispute obviously will vary from case to case, but core skills include map and imagery interpretation, geographical data management and visualization, and cartography.

Maps take many forms, ranging from field sketches to atlas plates to large-scale topographic sheets. Crucial aspects of map interpretation include understanding (1) the context in which the map was produced, and (2) the technical challenges associated with the production of the map in the period during which it was drawn. Map historians can often help with the first of these requirements, but the second requirement is usually best met by someone with practical experience of both modern and historical map survey and production techniques. …

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