Britain has played down a report from a UN commission which rules that the disputed Falkland Islands lie inside Argentinian 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% to include the disputed Falkland Islands and beyond.
But David Cameron’s official spokeswoman said the UK government had not yet seen the full report, and stressed that the commission was merely an advisory body.
“It’s important to note that this is an advisory committee – it makes recommendations; they are not legally binding and the commission does not have jurisdiction over sovereignty issues.
“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 decision of the UN commission will be key in its dispute with Britain over the islands.
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The short-term danger is that Buenos Aires will 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, if confirmed, has 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.
Argentina lost a brief, bloody 1982 war with Britain after Argentinian troops seized the South Atlantic archipelago that Latin Americans call the 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’s findings included the caveat that there is an unresolved diplomatic dispute 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 UN 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 covering 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 in the 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 UK 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. 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.