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ARGENTINA-UK: Oil Plans Spark Tension Over Malvinas/Falklands

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 18 2010 (IPS) - The imminent arrival of a British oil exploration rig in the South Atlantic ocean has recharged tensions between Argentina and Britain over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands.

Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana announced Wednesday that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will receive him Feb. 24 in New York to hear Argentina’s concerns about the British decision to take unilateral measures in the disputed territory. “The Argentine government has raised the tone of its claim, but it is not necessarily trying to provoke a no-turning back situation. Rather, it wishes to send a firm, strict complaint that is commensurate with the unilateral British measure taken,” Argentine diplomat Lucio García del Solar told IPS.

In the view of this former ambassador and expert on Argentine-British relations, “the parties in no way want to adopt military measures,” as they did in 1982 when Argentina took over the islands, occupied since 1833 by the U.K., by force, triggering a war that cost the lives of 649 Argentine and 255 British combatants, and ended in an Argentine surrender.

García del Solar, the Argentine ambassador to the U.N. in 1965, composed a resolution that he proposed to the U.N. General Assembly, stipulating the Decolonisation Committee should call on the U.K. every year to sit down and negotiate a solution to the dispute over sovereignty of the islands.

Tension between the two countries mounted because the British exploration rig, Ocean Guardian, is on its way to the Malvinas/Falklands Islands where it will arrive in a few days. It will be used by British firms Desire Petroleum and Rockhopper Exploration to drill for oil in disputed waters 160 km north of the archipelago.

According to geological surveys carried out in London in 1998, there could be 60 billion barrels of oil in the area around these southern islands, which lie 1,800 km from Buenos Aires and 12,000 km from London. Desire Petroleum’s own studies have confirmed close to three billion barrels of oil.

The Argentine government sent an energetic protest early this month through the British embassy in Buenos Aires, while the British Foreign Office defended the right of the islanders to develop an oil industry within their maritime borders.

On Tuesday Argentina escalated its protest. President Cristina Fernández signed a decree requiring all ships sailing from Argentine continental ports to any of the Malvinas/Falklands Islands, South Georgia or the South Sandwich Islands, or crossing Argentine territorial waters to get there, to apply for a permit before departure.

The president said the reason for the decree was the U.K.’s “systematic refusal” to act on U.N. resolutions calling on both countries to renew sovereignty negotiations and abstain from adopting unilateral measures. She asked that these resolutions “be enforced on all countries, not just the weakest.”

The decree implies that when the Ocean Guardian reaches the Falklands/Malvinas Islands “it will have to request authorisation from Argentina,” said deputy Foreign Minister Victorio Taccetti, as will ships providing logistical support to the rig.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Thursday “sensible discussions will prevail on this,” while reiterating that British companies were “perfectly within their rights.” He added “we have made all the preparations necessary to make sure that the Falkland Islanders are properly protected.”

British embassy sources said “the Argentine government has every right to legislate within its borders and the government of the Falkland Islands has the right to legislate within its territory.”

London “has no doubt about its sovereignty over the islands and their surrounding maritime territories,” and the drilling plans are “entirely legitimate,” the sources added.

García del Solar said that “for some time, London has assumed it has the right to explore for oil reserves around the islands. But they have never sent an oil rig like this one, which is bulky and highly visible, to disputed waters where everything is a sensitive issue.”

He said Argentina is claiming that the U.K. government “does not have the right to take unilateral measures for the exploitation of resources, in this case oil, without consulting and obtaining the approval of the Argentine government.”

“This is the position that Buenos Aires has taken, and it is to be hoped that the British government, which is sensible, will agree to requesting authorisation. Argentina has the right to grant or withhold permission. Although they are not Argentine territorial waters, they are disputed waters,” the former ambassador said.

Diplomatic relations between Argentina and the U.K. were cut off after the Malvinas/Falklands War, but were renewed in the early 1990s. García del Solar contributed to the rapprochement, but during the government of President Carlos Menem (1989-1999) a policy of closer relations with the islanders was established, with which he did not agree.

According to the career diplomat, Argentina’s valid interlocutor in this dispute should be the U.K., rather than the islands’ government. García del Solar was also against the fisheries and oil cooperation agreements signed in the 1990s, which allowed the islanders to sell permits without Argentine consent.

Under the administration of President Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007), the husband of President Fernández, Buenos Aires returned to the pursuit of its sovereignty claim.

García del Solar attributed this turnaround to Kirchner’s place of origin. He was born in the southern province of Santa Cruz, only 600 km from the disputed islands.

Kirchner cancelled the fisheries and oil cooperation agreements and banned companies that signed contracts for oil extraction in the Malvinas/Falklands under British law, from operating on Argentine soil.

Fernández is following a similar line in response to the new move from the U.K.

“Argentina’s measure – to require authorisation for ships going to the Malvinas – should be read within this policy of tighter demands, which raises the level of protest, and can be traced back to the Kirchner administration,” García del Solar told IPS.

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