Charlie presents the medals for the women's beam event at this summer’s Commonwealth Games (Photo: John Shephard, Gibraltar Commonwealth Games Association)
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Special Interview Feature

“Politics and sport shouldn’t meet”: Gibraltar and the Commonwealth Games

Team Gibraltar has just completed an admirable stint at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. We asked Charlie Flower, president of the Gibraltar Commonwealth Games Association, about the territory’s sporting history and future.

New Statesman: What is the history of Gibraltar's participation in the Commonwealth Games?

Charlie Flower: Gibraltar’s participation goes back to 1958 when it was called the British & Empire Games and was held in Cardiff. It was a special moment for me because I was able to represent my country in its first Games. I was also the flag bearer and travelled with another athlete, Brian Kitchener, who ran the mile and the 880 yards.

NS: How many times have you been to the Games? 

CF: Wales was my only Games as an athlete, but I’ve also been a coach once and I’ve travelled as chef de mission / general team manager five times. More recently, I’ve been at the Games in Delhi and Glasgow in my current role.

NS: You have just been awarded an Order of Merit for 60 years of service to sport in Gibraltar. How has the quality of sport in Gibraltar changed during this time?

CF: In some sports, the quality has exceeded expectations. However, in other areas it has moved more slowly. Gibraltar has the athletes to compete at international level but politics on the global stage plays its part in Gibraltar’s development.

NS: What have been the most significant milestones? 

CF: There have been many great achievements, whether Commonwealth activities or not. Gibraltar had an abundance of quality middle-distance runners from 1970 to 1984, which coincided with the closed-border years. Rifle shooting has also been of the highest level and continues to grow, with an individual performer of note being Heloise Manasco, who reached the final of the 10m women’s Air Rifle in Melbourne. Triathlon has also grown in popularity over the past dozen years.

NS: Tell us about your own career as an athlete. You were the first Gibraltarian to compete in the Commonwealth Games in 1958 – what was that like? 

CF: I was a keen sportsman and participated in most sports as a youngster on the Rock, although athletics was my forte. I specialised in one lap of the track, which was 440 yards in those days. It was a special moment for me in 1958 as it was a daunting prospect being on the start line in Cardiff up against world-renowned runners. I finished fifth in the first heat, clocking 53.10.

NS: How about this year's team – in what sports is Gibraltar particularly strong?

CF: This year’s team was the largest we’ve been able to send, with a total of 27 athletes across nine sports. There was a lot of experience, with some having competed three or four times before, but there were also a lot of youngsters cutting their teeth at this level for the first time.

We featured in three of the shooting disciplines. This included Albert Buhagiar and Wayne Piri competing in the 50m prone rifle, with Wayne finishing 14th out of 60 shooters.

It was a special Games for Wayne, with both his daughters also competing. Natalie was in the women’s prone rifle, while Stephanie shot in the 10m air rifle. Both shot well in their first Games and will surely return in four years time.

Clay trap shooters Kevin Cowles and Gary Cooper had a reasonable first day of competition but fell away in the second day, while air pistol pair Jonathan Patron and Louis Baglietto were solid, but will feel they have unfinished business.

We competed in squash for the first time, and the trio of Christian Navas, Anthony Brindle and Mark Tewkesbury all performed admirably against most of the world’s top 20. Anthony, in fact, made it to the second round of the singles.

The swim squad broke five national records across the six days in the pool, with the team blooding three young swimmers during the course of the first week.

The cyclists were just outside the top 30 in the time trial. With over 60 riders having taken to the start, the course was very demanding, but they stuck to their task.

Triathlon on the first day was of the highest calibre, with Gibraltar’s three triathletes up against the top in the world. Under the rules of the event, two of the Gibraltar boys were “pulled” from the elite race after being lapped by the race leaders, but the veteran Chris Walker was able to finish.

I’ve left my sport, athletics, till last. It started with disappointment, with Allison Edwards pulling out at the half way stage in the Marathon due a reoccurring injury. Allison was making her Games debut in her forties and I know how hard she had trained.

Emma Montiel battled bravely in the 10,000m, which is a gruelling 25 laps of the track. She was up against a whole host of world-class distance runners, while young sprinter Jerai Torres recorded two season bests in the 100m and 200m.

Gibraltar’s participation finished on a high, with Harvey Dixon breaking a national record that had stood for 28 years in the 1500m.

NS: What is support for the Commonwealth Games and the Gibraltar team like back home? Do the Games make Gibraltarians feel more British?

CF: The support is getting better and has grown in recent years, as we’ve looked to promote ourselves better. However, I still think we don’t get the support we deserve.

I don’t think the Games make Gibraltarians feel more British; that’s already part of our identity. We do feel part of a unique family alongside the other 70 nations of the Commonwealth.

NS: What has been the most memorable event for you throughout your career with the Gibraltar Commonwealth Games Association? 

CF: For me it is being flag bearer at the age of 21, but other memorable highlights include Heloise making the final in Melbourne, rhythmic gymnast Georgina Cassar making the final in Delhi, and hockey umpire Nathan Stagno officiating the final of the men’s hockey in India.

NS: It's rumoured that you will be retiring after this year's Games. What would you like your legacy to be? What are your hopes for the future of competitive sport in Gibraltar?

CF: Yes, I will be passing on the baton as President of the Gibraltar Commonwealth Games Association. My legacy is 60 years in sport, helping and being at the forefront of Gibraltar’s participation at the Games and as part of the Federation.

My hopes for the future are that one day Gibraltar will have athletes competing at the highest level on the international stage without obstacles and hindrance.

Politics and sport shouldn’t meet. We constantly strive for this. We’ve already had athletes participate at the Olympics for GB. Last time out in London, Georgina Cassar competed as part of the GB rhythmic gymnastics team, and Nathan, whom I’ve also already mentioned, officiated the hockey competition.

We can compete, it’s just a matter of time.


Charlie (right) shows off his Order of Merit alongside veteran triathlete Chris Walker (Photo: John Shephard, Gibraltar Commonwealth Games Association)


Photo: Getty
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The disputed waters around Gibraltar: time for a judicial settlement?

 Incursions by Spanish state vessels into Gibraltar waters have increased in frequency during 2015 and, in the absence of an effective British naval deterrent in the area, the actions of the Spanish authorities are also becoming more brazen.

With Spanish elections due in December, the Partido Popular government has raised the stakes in the dispute over the waters around Gibraltar. Incursions by Spanish state vessels into Gibraltar waters have increased in frequency during 2015 and, in the absence of an effective British naval deterrent in the area, the actions of the Spanish authorities are also becoming more brazen.

In recent weeks the Foreign Office has protested at, amongst other things, attempts by a Spanish vessel to take soundings in Gibraltar waters ostensibly for research purposes, and a hot pursuit by air and sea of suspected smugglers within metres of the Gibraltar coast, during which the Spanish authorities failed to notify – let alone cooperate with – their Gibraltarian counterparts. One of the most troubling incidents of the year took place on 22 August. A Spanish customs vessel operating in Gibraltar waters attempted to board a local pleasure boat. When the two occupants of the boat tried to evade capture, the Spanish crew fired live rounds in their direction. The pleasure boat was then apprehended by a vessel of the Royal Gibraltar Police and towed ashore. The boat and its occupants were searched and no sign of illicit activity was found. Initially, the Spanish authorities denied that shots had been fired, but they later admitted firing shots ‘into the water’ after video footage of the incident emerged.   

Such incidents invariably draw a diplomatic protest from Britain. The Foreign Office recites the mantra that the incursions are a violation of British sovereignty but not a threat to it. The more serious transgressions sometimes result in the Spanish ambassador to London being summoned to Whitehall for a dressing-down. The recent shooting incident was something of a game-changer. Lives had been needlessly placed at risk, and this prompted a more robust response from Britain. Diplomatic exchanges reportedly took place behind the scenes at the ‘highest level’. This resulted in an agreement, pursuant to which Britain, Spain and Gibraltar, in separate written communiqués, declared their intention to ‘step up’ law enforcement cooperation in the waters around Gibraltar. In reality, Spanish and Gibraltarian law enforcement agencies usually co-operate quite effectively at sea. Operational co-operation only tends to break down when the sovereignty dispute heats up. The crux of the problem is certainly not operational, and while the underlying sovereignty dispute persists, the latest agreement is unlikely to achieve much.

Unfortunately, the questions of sovereignty and jurisdiction over the waters around Gibraltar are as contested today as they have ever been. Whenever Britain issues its standard protest that Spanish incursions are a violation of British sovereignty, but not a threat to it, this is met by an equally formulaic rebuttal from Spain. The waters around Gibraltar, according to Spain, are Spanish. Gibraltar is not entitled to any territorial waters because, other than the internal waters of the port, no waters were expressly ceded to Britain by Spain under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.

The Spanish Foreign Minister said recently that Spanish state vessels would continue to operate in the waters that Britain and Gibraltar call ‘British Gibraltar Territorial Waters’. He nevertheless acknowledged that there was a difference of legal opinion between the British and Spanish authorities. He explained that when Spain acceded to the 1982 UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) it made a declaration to the effect that it did not accept that Gibraltar was entitled to any territorial waters.

In legal terms, disputes between states over maritime space can be notoriously complex. Expert hydrographers are often enlisted and equitable principles applied in order to determine where a maritime boundary should lie, or what the extent of a state’s continental shelf should be. The question of whether Gibraltar is legally entitled to a band of territorial waters is different. For a start, it is a zero-sum game. There is no room for a negotiated compromise – either Gibraltar has territorial waters or it does not. Secondly, in legal terms at least, the dispute is as simple as they come.

One of the cardinal principles of the international law of the sea is that coastal territories are automatically entitled to a band of territorial sea. International courts and tribunals have repeatedly affirmed this principle. When Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, the extent of a coastal state’s jurisdiction depended on the reach of its cannons. The so-called ‘cannon-shot rule’ evolved over the centuries into a principle of international law, permitting states to assert three, and later up to twelve, nautical miles of territorial sea. The principle is today enshrined in Article 2 of UNCLOS, which states that ‘the sovereignty of a coastal State extends, beyond its land territory and internal waters … to an adjacent belt of sea, described as the territorial sea’. Relying on this principle, Britain currently asserts three nautical miles of territorial sea around Gibraltar. The declarations made by Spain when signing and ratifying UNCLOS, to the effect that it does not accept that Gibraltar is entitled to a territorial sea, change nothing. Article 310 of UNCLOS provides that such declarations cannot ‘purport to exclude or to modify the legal effect of the provisions of this Convention’.

The Treaty of Utrecht does not define the extent of the ‘Port’ that was ceded, nor the extent of Gibraltar’s maritime jurisdiction more generally, but this is not unusual for a treaty of that period. The modern Spanish confection that jurisdiction over the waters was somehow excluded from the cession would have seemed ridiculous to those who sat around the negotiating table in Utrecht in 1713. Gibraltar and its surrounding sea have always been inseparably linked. The Rock’s strategic value stems precisely from its usefulness as a location from which to project maritime power. Britain has done this to good effect in the waters around Gibraltar for the past three centuries, with only occasional Spanish interference.

For most of the last 300 years, Britain exercised jurisdiction and control over a larger section of the waters around Gibraltar than it does today. Some of the waters under British control, in front of the Rock’s northern defences, washed onto several hundred metres of Spain’s south-eastern coastline. This particular stretch of water – and ‘dry coast’ – was the traditional focus of the Anglo-Spanish maritime dispute. Spain was understandably aggrieved that the waters off a section of its coastline were under the jurisdiction and control of another state, and made frequent complaints to Britain. In one piece of diplomatic correspondence, from 1878, Spain suggested that the waters should be divided ‘in a convenient manner and in such a way that no part of the coast should remain without jurisdictional waters’.

By the mid 20th century, the so-called ‘equidistance principle’ had become the internationally accepted standard, requiring adjacent territories to divide their territorial seas along a median line, in the absence of special circumstances or an agreement to the contrary. Britain maintained that it had special historic rights over the contested patch of waters adjoining the Spanish coast, but it eventually retreated to the median line in the late 1960s, at around the time that Franco’s government closed Spain’s border with Gibraltar. Spain was thus spared the humiliation of having a British anchorage directly off its coastline and, perhaps sensing that Britain was on the back foot, the Franco government decided to go on the offensive. Spain’s own ‘dry coast doctrine’ – the argument that in 1713 it ceded the town, castle, fortifications and port of Gibraltar, but not a jot of water around it – became the standard and regularly asserted Spanish position. The argument is practically absurd and legally indefensible.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry knows this. It employs a highly qualified team of legal advisors who are experts in international law. José Antonio de Yturriaga, a jurist who was formerly Spanish ambassador to Ireland, Iraq and Russia, and who for a time headed Spain’s special mission in Law of the Sea matters, has stated publicly that there is no legal basis to the claim that Gibraltar has no territorial waters. The current Spanish Foreign Minister – also legally qualified, and perhaps not expecting that his comments would be reported – acknowledged at a university seminar that the Spanish position regarding the waters around Gibraltar would be difficult to defend in court (while expressing greater confidence in the Spanish claim to Gibraltar’s disputed isthmus and its adjoining waters). In order for this issue to be settled in the International Court of Justice or an arbitral tribunal, Spain and Britain would both have to agree to submit to the proceedings. In 1966, Spain refused a proposal from Britain to settle the question of Gibraltar’s territorial waters, as well as other matters relating to the sovereignty of Gibraltar, in the International Court of Justice.

It is clear that Spain has no appetite for resolving the dispute over Gibraltar’s waters by judicial means. This is a shame, as an international court or tribunal would be the ideal forum in which to draw a line under this issue in a peaceful manner. The proceedings need not be complicated. Spain and Britain could agree to ask the court for an answer to a discrete legal question: ‘is Gibraltar entitled to a band of territorial waters under international law?’ In the absence of an authoritative judicial intervention, the waters around Gibraltar are likely to remain a flashpoint in the broader dispute over Gibraltar’s sovereignty.  

Dr A J Trinidad is a Gibraltarian barrister and a tutor at the University of Cambridge.