What's Behind International Land Grabs?

Two nations, each with populations of more than 30 million people and each possessing multibillion-dollar economies, are at odds over a rock in the ocean.

The land grab is between Spain and Morocco, but the territorial dispute could just as easily be between several other major countries. India and Pakistan, China and Japan, Greece and Turkey — each are involved in a complex dispute over their territories and borders.

"Sovereignty issues are notoriously difficult to resolve," said Bernard Oxman, a professor of international law at the University of Miami (Fla.). "It's always hard, but not impossible, to get a country to relinquish territory."

Most often, these long running, claim-jumping disputes aren't about the land, but what's beneath it: fish, minerals and oil. But in others, such as last week's flare-up between Spain and Morocco, the tangle boils down to the age-old forces of wealth and hubris.

Specks in the Sea

To Spain, the disputed island off the northern coast of Morocco is called Perejil. To Morocco, it's Leila. Spain has held title to the island for more than three centuries, but hasn't occupied the land in 40 years. In that time, the island's caves have been a hideout for illegal immigrants sneaking into Spain from Morocco.

"It's worthless territory," said Martin Pratt, an executive officer at the International Boundaries Research Unit in Durham, England. "These fights often are just in the foreground, with larger animosities in the background."

The conflict dates back to 1956 when Morocco gained its independence from France. Since then, Moroccans have demanded that Spain hand over all of its protectorates on Morocco's northern coast, including the island of Perejil.

The incident has parallels to a 1996 dispute between Greece and Turkey over the Kardak Rocks, a cluster of inhabited islands about four miles off the coast of Greece. Maritime boundaries in the Aegean Sea have always been a sticking point for the two countries, so when Greece declared its ownership of the land, the two nations nearly went to war. In the end, both did little more than exchange harsh words.

Turkey and Greece also have been in discussions since January to reunify war-torn Cyprus, which both countries have laid claims to for nearly 30 years. The United Nations last scolded Turkey for failing to meet a negotiation deadline.

Offshore Gold

Like most territorial disputes, the Spain-Morocco dust-up is about resources more important than the goats that call Perejil home.

"One of the big reasons these conflicts exist is not the land per se, but the maritime area they generate rights to," Pratt said.

According to the United Nations' Law of the Sea, passed in 1982, a country is granted 12 miles of territorial water off its coastline, and as well as 200-mile exclusive economic zone, which gives the coastal country rights to the everything below the sea in that region.

Oxman, who contributed to the U.N. law, said that most maritime disputes erupt when economic zones overlap. "Maritime boundaries are fiendishly difficult to agree on," he said.

In 1998, Eritrea and Yemen reached a settlement, with the help of some international arbitration, over the Hanish islands, located in the Red Sea. Oil and tourism drove an invasion by Eriteria — "a serious international incident," according to Pratt — but courts later handed the land back Yemen.

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