In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

UK stakes claim to huge area of South Atlantic seabed

Posted by seumasach on May 12, 2009

That the Brit’s defence of the “sovereignty”of the Falklands Islands was more than just symbolic is now patently clear. Our response must be equally forthright:

Las Malvinas son de Argentina!


11th May, 2009

A vast tract of the South Atlantic seabed – rich in oil and minerals – was formally claimed by the United Kingdom today in defiance of Argentinian opposition.

The submission to the United Nations commission on the limits of the continental shelf has been issued two weeks after the government in Buenos Aires lodged its application to extend control over an almost identical area of underwater territory.

The British claim is contained in a 63-page document that will be posted on the UN’s website. It defines the precise limits of the extended continental shelf area around the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

The islands are all British overseas territories, although ownership is disputed by Argentina. The Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown said: “Successful completion of this process will confirm the boundaries of the UK’s jurisdiction over its continental shelf, thus ensuring our sovereign rights to manage the shelf for future generations.”

The UK document deals concisely with the Argentinian counter-claim, stating: “The UK has no doubt about its sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and the surrounding maritime area.”

The submission is one of several last-minute claims for millions of square kilometres of the ocean floor that have arrived at the UN’s New York office before an international deadline – 13 May – for demarcating possession of extended continental shelves.

In the past two weeks, Ghana, Pakistan, Norway, South Africa, Iceland, Denmark, France, Vietnam, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Kenya and others have delivered boxes of documents to the UN in the hope of securing valuable oil, gas and mineral resources around the world.

The hefty files of detailed paperwork – one Australian submission ran to 80 volumes – are the culmination of years of underwater exploration by each state, plotting submarine contours that mark the outer edges of the continental shelf.

The complex rules of the UN convention on the law of the sea allow states to extend their control and exploitation of the seabed beyond the traditional 200 nautical mile limit and up to 350 nautical miles offshore.The precise extent of each claim frequently involves establishing the foot of an underwater continental slope, thousands of feet down in the chilly, dark oceans – and then measuring 60 miles outward.

Some claims, usually the legacies of unresolved international conflicts, are mutually exclusive, generating fresh diplomatic unease along the fissure lines of ancient boundary disputes.

As well as the overlapping claims for the Falklands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in the South Atlantic, a dispute has emerged between France and Canada over claims to be presented for the seabed surrounding St Pierre and Miquelon, a small archipelago off the coast of Newfoundland. The French have also raised hackles by claiming the seabed near their Pacific island territories.

The 13 May deadline applies only to those states that were signatories of the original treaty 10 years ago. Other states, which signed later, have more time left to submit their claims.

The US has still not ratified the UN convention, but the prospect of neighbouring countries such as Canada and Russia carving up the seabed for exploration is rapidly shifting opinion in Washington.

Greenpeace and other marine environmental groups have derided the process as a series of colonial land grabs. Britain has submitted several major claims, all in the Atlantic. They are around Ascension Island, in the waters near the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and in the Hatton-Rockall Basin to the west of Scotland.

The UK has signalled its interest in the continental shelf that slopes away from the British Antarctic Territory. All territorial claims at the south pole are, however, formally frozen by the Antarctic Treaty, to which the UK is a signatory.

Britain, France, Spain and Ireland have also lodged a shared submission for a 31,000 square mile tract of the ocean floor on the edge of the Bay of Biscay.

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