In 1982 the Buenos Aires government under General Galtieri invaded the Falkland Islands off the south coast of Argentina with a force of several thousand soldiers, overwhelming the garrison of Royal Marines stationed on the island. On the same day the Royal Navy was ordered to assemble a task force to reclaim the Falklands by force. The history of the conflict can be found in many books but despite a British victory exacting over six hundred Argentine lives the causes of the war persist to this day, at least in Argentina.
The claim to the Falkland Islands (or Malvinas as they are known to Argentinians) is one of proximity and historical claim; i.e., that they are much nearer to the Argentina than they are to Britain. Secondly Argentina, after gaining independence from Spain, sent a ship to use the islands as a penal colony. This was never accomplished due to a mutiny aboard the vessel. In 1833 a British force arrived and claimed the desolate islands. They have since seen the establishment of settlements, from which grew the current population of Falkland islanders. In the minds of Argentinians however, the islands are “rightfully” theirs.
To the cynic, the only thing that matters is the probability of oil resources under the waters surrounding the islands. Argentina as a developing state would understandably wish to tap this ever scarce resource and Britain is understandably no different. A burgeoning hydrocarbon resource would be a huge boon to any state in the current economic conditions and this conflict easily stands out as one of a new type we are likely to see more of in the coming decades; resource related disputes. Once upon a time these base causes for war were the alpha and omega of conflict but have been considered “unjust” in more recent terms. Land, oil, water are things that people find distasteful to fight for in the modern era.
What is more the population of the Islands; the Falklanders who have been there since the 1830s, remain steadfast in their willingness to remain subjects of the British Crown. It is this reason which mostly takes the priority at the Foreign Office and when questioned, it refers to Chapter 1, Article 1, Part 2 of the United Nations Charter which states that the purpose of the organization is, “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.” The claims and cause of conflict of the islands therefore come down to the following:
- Proximity to Argentina
- Economic interest: Oil resources exist outside Argentine waters but on “Argentine continental region”
- Historical claim: The Buenos Aires government in its infancy had “intent” to use the island before the establishment of British control but this never achieved fruition
- The belief that the islands are “morally” Argentinian due to the “evil” ways of European imperial powers
- Legal claim: Right to self-determination of the Falkland islanders under international law
- Economic interest: Oil resources exist within Falklands waters
- Historical claim: Have been a British territory since 1833
- Won the 1982 conflict
- Geostrategic position provides a friendly port of call for Western vessels navigating the Caoe
Current Argentine head of state President Cristina Kirchner has insisted that her approach will be one of peace in her ongoing presidential pledge to reclaim the islands for Argentina. In the recent Rio conference she acquired considerable support among her fellow South American leaders, particularly from Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez who directly challenged Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in a strange tirade. “Queen of England, I’m talking to you,” said Chávez. “The time for empires is over, haven’t you noticed? Return the Malvinas to the Argentine people.”
To the average Briton on the street this seems mad, in keeping with the general appreciation of Chavez’ personality. However, in South America, according to one Telegraph correspondent, Her Majesty is believed a potent element of British domestic and international government, despite having no seat in any international forum or either house of British Parliament.
The Argentinian foreign minister even approached Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, for discussion of the matter within the UN — with little result. The UN can do little however, as only those decisions made by the Security Council can be considered binding and this, at the moment, is no matter for that chamber of the United Nations.
The position of the Foreign Office in this has been quiet so far, merely reasserting that the stance of the British government is that the Falkland Islands are British, largely due to the rights of self-determination of the islanders.
In the British press, reactions have been mixed, much more so than in 1982 when there was a much greater level of unified thought that the islands were British. Perhaps much has changed since ’82 and people here now see the islands as an imperial throwback but, if this truly is the new world order of multilateralism and international law, surely it is up to the population of the Falkland Islands to decide, as is their right.
The position of Chile and the United States in the issue have also been of considerable debate. In 1982, Chile, under General Pinochet, was the sworn enemy of Argentina and assisted the British effort to reclaim the islands by launching a large offensive along the Chilean-Argentine border. America’s president at the time, Ronald Reagan, got on famously with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher whose decision it was to reclaim the islands. The same cannot be said of today’s American president nor of the British prime minister.
The United States’ official stance is one of studied neutrality, with an offer to mediate which has put a strain on the “special relationship.” In the Blair-Bush years this certainly would have been different and the current situation is certainly a symptom of the ongoing estrangement between the two formerly close allies due to personalities.
Obama is, we must accept, an anti-British president with a secretary of state barely worth that title. This is hardly surprising due to his family connection to Mau Mau terrorism in 1960s Kenya. It however serves as a harsh slap in the face to a British public who have seen considerable blood and treasure spent in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan. While in the United States, the close alliance with Britain in the Blaire-Bush years may be seen as symptom of that friendship but among the British population it was certainly a willingness to support the American people and their forces in the post-9/11 security environment.
The differentiation is an important one to be considered by the Obama Administration which has so far gained a reputation of putting former adversaries above old friends. The impacts could be profound, with the United States no longer considered a credible security partner to anywhere near the same extent as it was just years ago.
Whatever the diplomatic conditions and movements at present, the military question remains. Royal Navy activity has increased in the area with deployments of warships and subsurface craft. Whether Britain could refight the Falklands War with its current capability is a bone of contention in many places. The current forces in the region are considerably larger than in 1982, with vessels already in place, a proper runway with a hand full of Eurofighter aircraft and 1,000 Royal Marines.
However, with the current British commitment to Afghanistan and residual forces in Iraq, it is questionable if much more could be mounted for a Falklands defense should Argentina choose a military option. Certainly they have the political support to do so within South America, perhaps even militarily from Venezuela.
If we presume that British territory is sovereign and more important than other commitments, as makes sense, then the withdrawal of some 6,000troops from Afghanistan and Royal Navy vessels from Afghan and Somali duties could be needed for a relief effort. (Contrary to popular belief, most aerial sorties in Afghanistan are conducted from American and British aircraft carriers.) The Royal Navy is currently much smaller than it was in 1982 and it has been the consideration of many in the know that now (being before the launch of the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier) would be a perfect time, militarily, for Argentine action. Conveniently, it also seems a politically opportune time with the appearance, if not concrete, of trans-South American support and a decisive neutrality stance from the United States.
The upshot is that things are very tense right now. That is not to say that they haven’t been like this since 1982; they have been but right now things seem to be headed more to some kind of conclusion, albeit perhaps a temporary one, than they have since 1982.
In the unlikely event that some level of conflict should arise, then it is highly questionable if Britain could meet the requirements for the defense of Falkland islanders and the British workers on board the hyrdocarbon platform in the region. The Obama Administration’s position has put a serious strain on Anglo-American relations, the severity of which may be small or, in time, large but only time will tell. What is certain is that, should the British government in any way “lose” the islands to Argentina, it would be a sad time for the right of self-determination which should be a prime concern in Buenos Aires, London and at the United Nations in New York. In Britain, with an election imminent, weakness for Gordon Brown over the Falklands will be jumped on by the Conservatives like hounds on a wounded stag, while strength could add a string to Brown’s bow.