March 12, 2014
A no-win situation
Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman’s ultimatum to Ghana to free the naval training frigate Libertad is the purest gesture politics — the appearance of determined action rather than any reality. Brandishing firearms against Ghanaian port officials trying to relocate the vessel last week was actually rather closer to the spirit of an ultimatum than the threat to take Accra to Hamburg’s international court for the Law of the Sea if Argentina receives no satisfaction by today — something the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration could (and probably should) have done at the outset of this crisis six weeks ago. Resorting to the obscure German tribunal after first going to the United Nations Security Council could almost be described as a per saltum in reverse. The good news here is that Ghana would accede to a favourable court ruling quite automatically as a signatory of the Law of the Sea convention — the bad news is that this ruling would take the best part of a year to produce in the most optimal scenario.
The CFK administration’s blanket refusal to negotiate with the “vulture fund” creditors whose litigation has led to the Libertad being impounded in the Ghanaian port of Tema seems to oblige it to confront the Accra government which is in no way a plaintiff in this case and cannot break the impasse without overriding the separation of powers. Somewhat like the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia triggering World War I in 1914, the Foreign Ministry seems to be working hard to make its ultimatum unacceptable by adding extra aggressive clauses to boost the limp gambit of going to Hamburg — apart from releasing the frigate, Accra is enjoined to compensate fully all the costs incurred by the incident and to punish all its officials involved in blocking the vessel. The Foreign and Defence Ministries also highlighted the denial of fuel, power and water by the Ghanaian port authorities “in evident violation of basic human rights” (without mentioning that the Libertad has its own sources of supply in all these areas). As further escalation, the government is reinforcing the 44-strong skeleton crew by dispatching 50 more sailors to Tema.
Despite the histrionics of defying unarmed Ghanaian port officials by flaunting rifles, the real drama of this case is not located in Ghana or in Hamburg but in New York (the pre-agreed venue of debt jurisdiction) where Argentina’s apparent refusal to abide by the new legal terms of reference risks landing the country into a technically unnecessary default through sheer political bravado.