Tensions between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands came to a boiling point when the UK announced plans to begin offshore oil drilling near the remote islands in February of this year.
The history of the Falkland Islands is a complicated one. The British established a settlement there from 1766 to 1774 after which it was abandoned. Subsequently, the Falkland Islands became part of Argentinian territory until the British seized the islands by force in 1883. In March of 1982, General Galtieri, head of the military junta in Argentina decided to invade the Falkland Islands, but the UK was able to reclaim them after 74 days of war. However, after the war, Argentina maintained a sovereignty claim over the Islands which it calls Islas Malvinas.
Since the dispute was never resolved, British oil explorations in the Falklands basin caused a great deal of controversy in Argentina as well as in the international community.The government of Argentina formally objected to British drilling plans by adopting a decree determining that all ships travelling through Argentine territorial waters must seek a government permit to do so. British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband stated that his country’s oil exploration is ‘completely in accordance with international law’. According to the Argentinian Deputy Foreign Minister, Victorio Taccetti, ‘the UK sought to unilaterally and illegitimately exploit natural reserves that belong to Argentina’. Geologists have estimated that there are up to 60 billion of barrels of oil in the seabed near the Falklands Islands.As the issue escalated, Argentina decided to take the dispute to the United Nations General Assembly where it hopes to garner support for its claim to sovereignty over the Islands. So far, a total of 32 Latin-American as well as Caribbean nations have issued a statement endorsing Argentina’s demands. As UN diplomats anticipate that Argentina will be able to get a resolution passed by simple majority vote, it should be noted that resolutions are not legally binding. If Argentina insists on pushing this matter even further, it will ultimately need to be litigated by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Aside from the issue of sovereignty, legal experts expect Argentina to address the seabed issue as well.
This dispute raises a number of questions based on international law. Under international law, Argentina is entitled to limit access by ships to and from its ports. Even though Argentina has extended its rights to ships passing through its territorial waters, article 17 of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea states that ships have a right to innocent passage. This causes the Argentinian decree requiring ships to seek government permits for passage to be problematic.
Under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, coastal states may explore and exploit natural resources of their continental shelf for up to 200 nautical miles from shore. It is also possible for States to extend that outer limit up to 350 nautical miles from the baseline of the territorial sea. The areas that are claimed by the UK and Argentina are overlapping which will automatically bring up the issue of sovereignty. In general, any dispute under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea must be brought to the Commission on the Limits to the Continental Shelf but the Commission is not authorized to address issues regarding sovereignty of states.
A Falkland Island Government Legislative Assembly Member Ian Hansen stated that ‘as long as there is a sovereignty dispute, there can be no further discussion on continental shelf issues’. From a legal standpoint the issue of oil drilling in the Falkland Basin won’t be easily resolved and will probably result in a very long legal procedure in case one of the parties decides to take the matter to the ICJ . It is therefore very likely that both nations will seek diplomatic as well as economic solutions to settle their claims.