courts, law, lawyers, negotiation

What use is a lawyer anyway?

There is a place in Africa where, as a result of colonialism, geography, and local politics four nations; Botswana, Namibia,  Zambia and Zimbabwe all converge, creating a rare cartographic phenomenon called a ‘quadripoint’. The oddity  of a four way border exists because, in colonial times rivers made for easy borders. They were easy for everyone to understand, and, they didn’t have to be surveyed. The only real problem with using a river to denote a border is that the pesky things never stay still, constantly changing course and carving  out new channels. Botswana’s slice of the four way border marked in part by the  Zambezi River, for example, has shrunk to only some 150 yards of river frontage.

The problem becomes more apparent if one floats downstream from Kazungula, the actual site of the quadripoint, and onto the Chobe river where, just past the town of Kasane, Sedudu Island is encountered. The Chobe river is also an international boundary – between Botswana and Namibia- it was set by the Germans and the British as they were carving up that portion of Africa in 1890, with the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty, which stipulated the boundary to be “the thalweg of the main channel—of the Chobe River.”

Sedudu Island sits smack in the middle of the Chobe river, five square kilometres of prime grazing land with two wide channels around it, one flowing to the north,  (Namibia)and one to the south (Botswana)- so who does it belong to ? Both countries want it, Namibia to provide agricultural land for its growing population, and Botswana, for inclusion into Chobe National Park

The traditional way to resolve such a border dispute would have been armed conflict, with each side sending armed forces to claim, occupy, and defend the disputed land (and probably destroying it in the process.) But Botswana and Namibia, peace loving nations both, went a different route- they hired lawyers!

The dispute was submitted to the International Court of Justice in the Hague (best known as a soft berth for well-connected law professors looking for a European sabbatical) And the court, in proper lawyer-like fashion, tackled the dispute – taking some three years to ponder, at a leisurely pace, the proper interpretation of the 1890 treaty, the principles of international law and the empirical evidence dredged up (literally) by the lawyers for each nation.

At the end of the day, the dredging evidence held sway, and the court held that, taking into consideration the measured depth, width, and water flow of both channels, the northern channel won the title of “main Channel” and the island belonged to Botswana.

So, all in all, a victory for lawyers and the rule of law, and an armed conflict in a volatile part of the world averted. Remember that the next time someone asks  you ” what use is a lawyer anyway?)

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