In 2009, an Argentinian delegation stood up to make a presentation to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), a subsidiary of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Its objective: to gain the South American nation an extension to the standard 200 nautical miles which defines Argentina’s continental shelf. The delegation requested the zone be extended to the maximum distance of 350 nautical miles, covering an extra 660,000 square miles, out into the South Atlantic.
Last week, some seven years on, the CLCS reported that it would accept Argentina’s request. ‘This is an historic occasion for Argentina,’ Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra was reported as saying. ‘This reaffirms our sovereignty rights over the resources of our continental shelf.’
What complicates the situation, however, was the delegation’s insistence in 2009 (repeated at a subsequent CLCS session three years later) that Argentina asserts ‘its legitimate and imprescriptible sovereignty over Islas Malvinas [the Falkland Islands], Georgias del Sur and Sandwich del Sur [South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands] and the corresponding island and maritime areas as they are part of [Argentina’s] national territory.’ Therefore, in its statement, the CLCS included that ‘the Commission had already decided that it was not in a position to consider and qualify those parts of the submission that were subject to dispute’. In other words, while it accepts Argentina’s legitimate claims to a wider Atlantic territory, it doesn’t mean it is willing, or indeed able, to rule on the Falklands question.
Nevertheless, the sensitivity around this issue has led the UK government to comment on the CLCS verdict, stating that ‘the CLCS has no jurisdiction over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands’, that ‘the CLCS could not and did not consider claims relating to the Falkland Islands within the Argentine submission,’ and, finally, that ‘the UK government remains in no doubt over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, nor of the right of the islanders to determine their own future’.
“It put on notice that Argentina takes seriously the notion that it sees the southwest Atlantic as an essential element in its long-term planning”
‘The recommendation from the CLCS is important,’ explains Klaus Dodds, Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction, ‘because it will form the basis for the Argentine state to extend its sovereign rights over a vast area of the South Atlantic seabed. While it excludes the Falklands, South Georgia and what is called Argentine Antarctic Territory, the UN CLCS clearly found much of the Argentine submission regarding the outer continental shelf convincing and in line with Article 76 of UNCLOS. So Argentina has demonstrated its scientific-technical credentials. It also, in a way, put on notice that Argentina takes seriously the notion that it sees the southwest Atlantic as an essential element in its long-term planning.’
And the UK’s response? ‘It’s worth remembering,’ Dodds points out, ‘that in 2012 a vast area of the Antarctic [claimed by both the UK and Argentina] was named Queen Elizabeth Land by the British government and was a deliberate attempt to redraw the map in favour of the UK sovereignty position. So both Argentina and the UK use maps and mapping to cement their sovereignty positions in the contested South Atlantic and Antarctic.’
Dodds also calls for a more in-depth understanding of the CLCS, and the impact which it has in settling global territorial marine disputes. ‘Its recommendations – not judgements – are recasting the sovereign politics of the global seabed,’ he explains, ‘and many coastal states are benefiting as they extend their sovereign rights over the seabed and potentially onto resources contained on and within that area.’