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UK “considering approach” to Falklands’ continental shelf and May deadline

Thursday, April 9th 2009 - 12:28 UTC
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The United Kingdom has no doubts about its sovereignty over the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, or its right to make a submission to extend the continental shelf under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, but it is considering its approach in view of the May 2009 deadline.

According to an update from the Foreign Office the UK is currently researching its submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, CLCS, in respect of those areas around the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

Data has been collected but plans for the submission have not been finalized, “and we are considering our approach in view of the May 2009 deadline”.

The release also reveals that the UK discussed the issue with technical and legal experts from the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2001 and 2004, with a view to making a joint submission without prejudice to rival sovereignty claims.

However, “despite a UK proposal for a further meeting in 2007, no further bilateral meetings have taken place”.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) confers on all coastal States sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting the natural resources of its continental shelf.

UNCLOS provides that each coastal State possesses as a matter of international law a continental shelf which extends to 200 nautical miles from the shoreline (regardless of whether or not a geological continental shelf exists that far).

In addition, Article 76 of UNCLOS provides for coastal States to seek to establish an extended outer limit to the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles, up to 350 nautical miles from its coastline, or 100 miles from where the sea reaches a depth of 2,500 metres, and where specified geological conditions exist.

For this purpose, the State is required to submit evidence to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), which will then make recommendations concerning the establishment of the outer limits of the State’s continental shelf.

As of 8 April 2009, the CLCS has received 21 submissions from coastal States, and we expect that many more will follow.

So far the UK in 2006 made its first partial submission, jointly with Ireland, France and Spain, in respect of the continental shelf in the Bay of Biscay. This submission is currently under consideration by the CLCS.

In May 2008, the UK made another partial submission in respect of the shelf around Ascension Island – this was formally presented to the CLCS on 27 August 2008.

Also in May 2008, the UK notified the CLCS that it is not making a submission with full supporting data to define an area of continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from the coast of British Antarctic Territory, but that it reserves the right to do so in the future.

On 31 March 2009, the UK made a partial submission in respect of the continental shelf in the Hatton Rockall area of the NE Atlantic. Informal discussions have been taking place with Iceland, Ireland and Denmark (on behalf of the Faroe Islands), all of whom believe that they too may have a geological case for an extended continental shelf in the Hatton Rockall area.

Finally the chapter on the South Atlantic Islands

In cases where a dispute exists between the coastal States concerned, the Rules of Procedure of the CLCS require it to decline to examine any submission which would prejudice delimitation between them without the agreement of the States concerned. Ideally, the States concerned will agree on a common approach before submitting to the Commission. The best solution in such areas may be for the States concerned to make a joint submission, or at least separate but complementary submissions.

Regarding Antarctica, the right to an extended continental shelf under the UN Law of the Sea has to be considered against the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty, which put all territorial claims in abeyance.

Of the seven Claimant States in Antarctica, Australia made a submission to the UN Commission for the Limits of Continental Shelf in respect of the Australian Antarctic Territory in 2004.

Australia submitted full co-ordinates of its continental shelf margin, but asked that the CLCS simply store the data and not consider it (because of the Antarctic Treaty).

In 2006, New Zealand notified the CLCS that it was not submitting data for the continental shelf around its Ross Dependency in Antarctica, but that it reserved the right to do so in the future. The UK followed the New Zealand model in May 2008.

The UK expects that the remaining Claimant States will also follow one of these two approaches.

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