Commission's ruling on Falkland Islands dismissed by UK

UN commission says Argentinian maritime area should be expanded to include disputed territory and more

Britain has played down a report from a UN commission that led to revived but disputed claims that the Falkland Islands is within Argentinian sovereign waters.

The Argentinian foreign ministry seized on the findings of the UN commission on the limits of the continental shelf, which expand Argentina’s maritime territory in the south Atlantic Ocean by 35%.

The Argentinian foreign office had claimed in a presentation on Monday that the as-yet-unpublished UN ruling was a diplomatic victory and a vindication of nearly 20 years of claims made at the UN on geological grounds. New maps were produced by the government showing the waters around the Falklands belonging to Argentina.

But the UK Foreign Office said “the commission has no jurisdiction over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands”. It added the UN body itself acknowledged that the commission’s own rules of procedure do not allow it to consider cases where overlapping claims are made, as is the case with the Falklands.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “What’s important is what do the Falkland islanders themselves think? They’ve been clear that they want to remain an overseas territory of the UK and we will still support their right to determine their own future.”

The UN commission on the limits of the continental shelf sided with Argentina, ratifying the country’s 2009 report fixing the limit of its territory at 200 to 350 miles from its coast. As a result, the Argentinian foreign ministry claimed its waters had increased by 1.7m square km (0.66m square miles) and the ruling of the UN commission will be important over future drilling in the waters.

Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri, hailed the UN decision as “very significant” for Argentina. “The extension of the limits of our country’s platform will permit us to defend the resources of our sea, which is the property of each and every Argentinian,” Macri said on Facebook.

Shortly after taking office in January, Macri told the Guardian he wanted “a new kind of relationship” with the UK, although he made it clear that he would continue to press Argentina’s claim to sovereignty.

On Tuesday, Argentina’s opposition also greeted the decision, saying it reaffirms the country’s claims to the islands, known in Spanish as Las Malvinas. “This comes at the right time because it repositions our claim on the Malvinas,” said Guillermo Carmona, a former chief of the foreign relations commission of the lower house.

The short-term prospect is that Buenos Aires may see the report as providing moral justification to fish more, potentially leading to an increase in incidents between Falklands’ and Argentinian vessels. In the medium term, the ruling could have implications for the exploration and exploitation of natural resources including oil and gas deposits as well as other minerals and biological resources.

Drilling for oil in the territorial waters around the Falklands began in 2010 despite opposition from Buenos Aires. The Argentinian government in response to the UN ruling called off-shore commercial firms operating in the waters to consult Buenos Aires first, and shares in some drilling companies operating in the area fell. But the ruling is a big boost to Argentina even without the issue of the Falklands since it is estimated that even if the Falklands are viewed as a separate state with full maritime rights, it would not affect more than 5% of Argentina’s continental shelf.

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Argentina lost a brief, bloody 1982 war with Britain after Argentinian troops seized the South Atlantic archipelago that Latin Americans call Las Malvinas. “This is a historic occasion for Argentina because we’ve made a huge leap in the demarcation of the exterior limit of our continental shelf,” the foreign minister, Susana Malcorra, said. “This reaffirms our sovereignty rights over the resources of our continental shelf.”

Oil exploration is already pumping millions of dollars into the Falkland Islands’ economy. Many islanders remain concerned about Argentina’s claim as well as the potential for problems from rapid change brought by the new industry. The UN commission itself pointed to its previous ruling that its advice does not apply if there is an unresolved territorial dispute such as between Argentina and Britain over the islands.

Under UN law, countries have sovereign rights over their continental shelves up to 200 nautical miles from their shorelines. They can apply to extend the boundary to a radius of 350 nautical miles from their coastlines if they can prove that the area is a natural prolongation of their dry landmass.

On Monday, Malcorra published a new map setting out Argentina’s new limits and its new “frontier with humanity”. She praised the commission as “a scientific body made up of 21 international experts of renowned prestige, created by the United Nations convention on the oceans and laws of the sea. She said the commission had “adopted by consensus – that is to say without a single nay vote – the recommendations of the Argentine presentation. They have recognised the Argentine case as the leading case.”

The deputy foreign minister, Carlos Foradori, stressed Argentina would not act unilaterally in its dispute with the UK, but said the decision was a diplomatic victory and the culmination of decades of work by different administrations.

The latest version of the dispute goes back to 2009, when Argentina, under the government of Cristina Fernández, made a formal submission on the limits of its territory. But even before then, a previous president, Carlos Menem, in 1995 commissioned 12 scientific maritime surveys collecting data to make the presentation. The UK issued a counter-claim in 2009 and the welter of potentially commercially invaluable claims has meant a huge backlog has developed. The commission only meets for six months a year.

The Falklands’ director of natural resources, John Barton, interviewed by the island newspaper Penguin News, said that the issue of extended continental shelf beyond the 200 miles maritime limit was covered by Article 77 of the Law of the Sea and only refers to sedentary species.

“The natural resources referred to in this part consist of the mineral and other non-living resources of the seabed and subsoil together with living organisms belonging to sedentary species, that is to say, organisms which, at the harvestable stage, either are immobile on or under the seabed or are unable to move except in constant physical contact with the seabed or the subsoil.

“So, in theory, any jurisdiction over extended continental shelf areas beyond 200 miles and out to 350 miles does not apply to mobile marine living resources such as squid. Any extensions of continental shelf areas are more relevant to mineral resources.”

The Ukip defence spokesman, Mike Hookem, called on the British government to stand by the Falkland islanders, saying the islands did not lie in Argentinian waters and the UN should not be altering “customary international law for the sake of one country whose actions in 1982 cost over one thousand lives. “What happened to their [the Falkland islanders’] right of self-determination?

“After years of continued threats and bullying, including actions which are also illegal under international law, such as the ban on certain flagged vessels, they want to get hold of the continental shelf surrounding the Falklands to try to boost their flagging coffers at the expense of the livelihoods of people who do not wish to be part of Argentina. I thought the UN was supposed to be a global arbitrator and stick to its own laws, not pick favourites at the expense of its own principles,” he added.

The Falklands are internally self governing but Britain is responsible for its defence and foreign affairs. A spokesman for the British government said islanders cannot be forced to accept Argentinian sovereignty against their will. The Falkland Islands government said on Monday it was seeking clarification from the British government on “what, if any, decisions have been made, and what implications there may be” for the territory in relation to the ruling.


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor, Heather Stewart Political editor and Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires

The GuardianTramp

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