Fiji hopes to send Tonga another invitation to hold talks over disputed Minerva reefs

Fiji said they wanted to continue to push for the Tonga government to come to the negotiation table to discuss ownership of Minerva reefs.

Fiji regarded the move as urgent so that it can register the reefs.

The two countries hold different opinions about Minerva, Fiji’s Minister of Foreign Affairs  Inia Seruiratu told Fiji Broadcasting Corporation News.

He said Tonga believed it was an island while Fiji believed it was a submerged reef.

“It is very critical for us now to register our baselines and all our claims because of the rise in sea levels. Because may be who knows in the next few years some of these baselines will be under water again and that is why we need to quicken the process,”  Seruiratu reportedly said.

The Minister has also revealed Tonga has yet to respond to an invitation from Fiji in November last year to discuss the reefs.

The ownership of Minerva Reefs has been an unresolved issue between Fiji and Tonga for quite a while.

Minerva reefs is a group of two submerged atolls named after the whaling ship Minerva that wrecked there in 1829.

The reefs are regarded as the fishing ground of the ancestors of the people of Fiji’s Ono-i-Lau. 

Tonga declared Minerva part of its territory in 1972, after late King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV made a royal proclamation that it belongs to Tonga.

The two atolls were then named Teleki Tokelau (North) and Teleki Tonga (South). Tonga constructed two structures in each of the reefs where beacons were placed.

 But in November 2005 Fiji complained to the International Seabed Authority (ISA) claiming Minerva was part of its territory. The claim was countered by Tonga without the ISA reaching any conclusion and arguments between the two countries have continued. 

In November 2009 an RNZAF Orion was seen flying over the reefs after Fiji patrol boats chased away yachts.

The row between the two countries reached such a point in 2010 that Fijian navy vessels destroyed navigation lights on the reefs.

The Tongan government immediately dispatched its navy vessels to the area to re-erect the navigational beacon and publicly announced its claim over the disputed reefs.

According to Dr Rev Mohenoa Puloka, a Tongan lawyer in international seabed law, Tonga could make two possible sovereign claims on the Minerva Reefs.

These are an Exclusive Economic Zone and a Special Economic Zone.

An EEZ is a sea zone prescribed by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea over which states have special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources, including energy production from water and wind.

It stretches from the baseline out to 200 nautical miles from its coast. 

An SEZ is a geographical region that has economic and other laws that are more free-market-oriented than a country’s typical or national laws. Nationwide, laws may be suspended inside a special economic zone.

The concept of a Special Economic Zone covers a broad range of specific zone types.

These include Free Trade Zones (FTZ), Export Processing Zones (EPZ), Free Zones (FZ), Industrial Estates (IE), Free Ports and Urban Enterprise Zones among others. 

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