North Sea Continental Shelf Cases
(Federal Republic of Germany/Denmark and Netherlands)
1969 I.C.J. 3 (Feb 20)

  • Article 6 of the Convention on the Continental Shelf (516 U.S.T.S. 205 (1958)) says that if there are two countries separated by a sea, the boundary between then should be calculated as the point equidistant from both coastlines.
    • This is known as the equidistance principle.
    • It is important to know where the boundary is because a country can drill for oil in the seabed within their territory.
  • The North Sea is surrounded by Norway, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Denmark. There is lots of oil right near the middle.
  • Germany felt that they were getting a bad deal because their coastline was concave, while Denmark and the Netherlands had convex coastlines (look at a map). This meant that based on the equidistance principle, they would get less seabed than they would get if the coastlines were all straight.
    • They went to the International Court of Justice and asked for a ruling on how to draw the boundary.
    • Denmark and the Netherlands argued that the equidistance principle was not only codified in the Convention of the Continental Shelf, but that it was already 'crystallized' into customary international law.
  • The ICJ found that the boundary should be redrawn on the basis of equitable principles.
    • The ICJ agreed that the equidistance principle gives a country with a convex coastline more seabed than what a country with a concave coastline would receive.
    • The ICJ found that the equidistance principle was still relatively new, and so it wasn't exactly customary international law just yet.
      • In addition, there is a clause in Article 6 that allows for different boundary lines to be drawn when "justified by special circumstances."
    • The ICJ told the parties to go back and work out a boundary that was equitable to everybody.
  • Basically, this case said that countries didn't need to follow the equidistance principle if it was inequitable.
    • Later, this theory of equity was codified in Article 83 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea (1833 U.N.T.S. 3 (1982)),