Ethiopia’s Risky Maritime Ambitions – Undermining International Law for Sea Access

In the intricate world of international maritime activities, two concepts often come into play: "lease for port access" and "sovereign access to the sea."

In the intricate world of international maritime activities, two concepts often come into play: “lease for port access” and “sovereign access to the sea.” These terms, while related to maritime operations, involve different legal and operational frameworks, each carrying unique implications for the parties involved. Here’s a detailed comparison to shed light on their distinctions and the geopolitical tensions they can create, particularly concerning Ethiopia’s ambitions.

A lease for port access is a contractual agreement where one party (the lessor) grants another party (the lessee) the right to use a port facility for a specified period in exchange for payment. Leases are time-bound, typically lasting for several years, after which they can be renewed or terminated based on the agreement. The lessee does not gain ownership of the port but is allowed to use its facilities, while the lessor retains ultimate ownership and control. The lease agreement outlines the rights and responsibilities of both parties, including maintenance, operational control, and financial obligations. Clauses can cover infrastructure investment, management practices, and revenue sharing. Governed by commercial law, leases are enforceable through civil courts, with terms varying widely based on the strategic importance of the port and the needs of the parties. Leasing generates revenue for the lessor and provides the lessee access to strategic trade routes or markets without the need for large upfront infrastructure investments.

In contrast, sovereign access to the sea refers to a nation’s inherent right to access the open sea, a principle recognized under international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Sovereign access is an inalienable right of coastal states, while landlocked countries gain access through specific treaties and agreements. Coastal states have sovereignty over their territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles from their coastline and rights to resources in their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) up to 200 nautical miles. Governed by international treaties, sovereign access ensures freedom of navigation and the right of innocent passage through territorial waters, as stipulated by UNCLOS. Sovereign access involves broader strategic and security implications, allowing coastal states to regulate port and territorial water access, enforce customs and immigration laws, and protect maritime interests. It enables countries to engage in international trade, develop maritime industries, and exploit marine resources. For landlocked countries, access agreements are vital for economic development and integration into global trade networks.

Ethiopia, a landlocked nation, did not hide or shy away from the fact that they are seeking sovereign access to the sea, which is fundamentally different from leasing ports. Meanwhile, Somaliland has claimed they are leasing sea access to Ethiopia, a claim that is legally dubious as Somaliland, being a breakaway region, lacks the recognized legal authority to lease the sea, let alone grant sovereign sea access. Ethiopia’s attempt to secure sovereign access through Somaliland not only challenges international maritime law but also undermines the legal framework that governs territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.

The Somali government has made it unequivocally clear that it will never allow an inch of its territorial waters to be ceded to Ethiopia. This stance is grounded in both legal principles and national sovereignty. Somalia’s territorial waters, stretching 12 nautical miles from its coastline and extending to the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, are integral to its national identity and economic future. The idea of leasing or giving away sovereign sea access is not only unacceptable but also illegal under international law. Somalia’s firm position highlights the importance of maintaining control over its maritime boundaries, ensuring that its waters are used to benefit its own people and economy, not as a bargaining chip in regional power plays.

Comparing these concepts reveals significant differences. A lease is a temporary and contractual arrangement dependent on agreement terms, whereas sovereign access is a permanent and inherent right recognized by international law. Control in a lease is shared or temporarily transferred to the lessee, while full control in sovereign access remains with the sovereign state. The legal framework for leases is governed by commercial and civil law, whereas sovereign access is governed by international maritime law and treaties. Economically, leases provide revenue and development opportunities for port infrastructure, whereas sovereign access ensures long-term economic benefits through maritime trade and resource exploitation. Strategically, leases may involve specific terms based on the interests of both parties, while sovereign access involves national security and broader geopolitical implications.

Ethiopia’s quest for sovereign access to the sea through Somaliland raises significant legal and geopolitical issues. The move undermines international maritime norms and threatens to destabilize the region. Ethiopia’s approach appears to circumvent the established legal frameworks that govern maritime rights and territorial waters. By seeking to secure sea access through a breakaway region not recognized as a sovereign entity, Ethiopia is engaging in a form of maritime adventurism that could have far-reaching consequences.

The implications of this situation extend beyond simple access to the sea. Sovereign access involves not just the right to navigate and trade but also the right to control and exploit maritime resources. For Ethiopia, achieving sovereign sea access would mean not only a logistical advantage but also potential control over significant marine resources. This potential control raises alarms for Somalia, which relies on its maritime resources for economic development and national sustenance.

Furthermore, the strategic and security considerations cannot be ignored. Sovereign access to the sea allows a nation to project power and influence over maritime regions, something Ethiopia, as a landlocked country, currently lacks. Gaining sovereign access would significantly alter the balance of power in the Horn of Africa, potentially leading to increased tensions and conflicts over maritime boundaries and resources.

The Somali government’s firm stance against ceding any territorial waters to Ethiopia is a crucial defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Somalia’s territorial waters are not just a matter of national pride but a critical component of its economic strategy. The waters provide vital fishing grounds, potential oil and gas reserves, and key maritime trade routes. Any compromise on these waters would have severe economic and security repercussions for Somalia.

Moreover, international support for Somalia’s position is vital. The international community, particularly maritime nations and organizations like the United Nations, must uphold the principles of international maritime law. Allowing Ethiopia to bypass these laws sets a dangerous precedent that could embolden other landlocked nations to seek similar arrangements, leading to a breakdown of established maritime norms.

Many landlocked countries have well-developed economies, boasting robust industrial, service, and financial sectors that contribute to their high GDPs despite their lack of direct access to the sea. Similarly, Ethiopia can enhance its economic development while respecting international law and the sovereignty of its neighbors.

Leasing port access and sovereign access to the sea are fundamentally different concepts with distinct legal and operational frameworks. Leasing is a commercial arrangement with specific terms and temporal limits, providing economic opportunities without altering sovereignty. In contrast, sovereign access is a permanent right of coastal and, through agreements, landlocked states, essential for their participation in maritime activities and global trade. Ethiopia’s controversial pursuit of sovereign sea access through Somaliland challenges these distinctions, threatening regional stability and undermining international maritime law. Somalia’s resolute opposition to this move is a necessary defense of its sovereignty and an assertion of the principles that govern international maritime relations. Understanding these differences and supporting Somalia’s stance is crucial for maintaining the integrity and stability of maritime governance.

Ismail D. Osman
Ismail D. Osman
Ismail D. Osman: Former Deputy Director of Somalia National Intelligence & Security Agency (NISA) – Writes in Somalia, Horn of Africa Security and Geopolitical focusing on governance and security. You can reach him osmando[at] @osmando