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Opinion & Analysis

International obligations

Gibraltar has always championed its adherence to international legislation and the rule of law. Yesterday, that commitment was put to the test in a dangerous operation in British Gibraltar territorial waters.
When the Gibraltar Government received information that the supertanker Grace 1 was carrying a shipment of crude oil to war-ravaged Syria, it had little option but to act.
Europe has banned oil shipments to Syria since 2011 but had never seized a tanker at sea, making yesterday's move a landmark operation.
The move came against the background of Middle East tensions over Iran's nuclear programme. The added dimension that the cargo was Iranian oil also drew in the US, which has sanctions targeting Iranian oil shipments. According to Spain, the initial request to stop the ship came from the US.
For Gibraltar, bound as it is by EU law and commitments, the focus was on the ship's destination.
There is absolutely no doubt that this was an operation coordinated by the UK and its NATO allies, in which Gibraltar was called upon to play an important role.
The fact that UK military assets were deployed in support of Gibraltar's law enforcement agencies underlines clearer than any words the UK's position in this.
Gibraltar's law enforcement officers and their UK military colleagues were rightly praised for their bravery. Boarding a large ship at sea is dangerous at the best of times, let alone at night and with no confirmation of what to expect on board.
Officials here played down speculation of any wider risk to Gibraltar as a result of this operation. The Gibraltar Contingency Council met yesterday and reviewed its impact on the security situation. The threat level, which has been at 'substantial' since the terror attacks in Europe in 2015, remains unchanged.
There is nothing to suggest any specific risk to Gibraltar and the GCC will continue to closely monitor threat intelligence as it relates to the Rock.
For the EU, yesterday's operation sends a strong signal to the Assad regime in Syria that Europe takes the sanctions seriously.
In parallel, the move also sends a powerful message to Iran, which in recent weeks has been accused of engaging in dangerous brinksmanship including shooting down a US drone and allegedly attacking ships to disrupt shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.
Against that background, yesterday's operation was a legal and proportionate move by western countries. It was also a stark reminder of the realities of Gibraltar's international obligations.
There was, of course, a domestic political dimension to this too: There can be no clearer message on sovereignty than a Gibraltar-led law enforcement operation with UK military backing to enforce international sanctions in British waters.
If Spain is to be believed – and there is no reason to doubt Madrid, although officials here will neither confirm nor deny the claim – then the US requested the UK to stop the ship.
It did so because of a longstanding relationship and a clear understanding that Gibraltar's waters are British under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Spain, which claims the waters around the Rock are Spanish, says it knew in advance about the operation but did not try to stop it because it was about enforcing EU sanctions against Syria.
That may well be so. Perhaps, however, Madrid also knew that legally in British Gibraltar territorial waters, it does not have a leg to stand on.

MAIN PHOTO: David Parody