This April marks the 29th anniversary of the Falklands War (known as the Malvinas War in Argentina), which claimed the lives of 650 Argentines and 258 British soldiers. But beyond the battle is a territorial dispute that has raged for 178 years and shows no sign of disappearing. With lucrative fishing licenses, oil prospects, Antarctic ambitions, and a military base with 2,500 troops said to be defending a population of the same size, is the UK actually afraid of Argentine aggression or is it afraid of compromising on such a strategic and valuable holding?
“Two bald men fighting over a comb,” said Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges of the war between the UK and Argentina over the Falklands Islands. It’s a metaphor that became branded to what many believe to have been a senseless war between two deeply unpopular governments, both looking to win points at home, over a cluster of islands in the remote South Atlantic. UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s popularity was plummeting thanks to a series of neoliberal domestic policies, and with 30,000 disappearances to its name the Argentine military junta and its iron-fisted rule was losing any legitimacy it once had.
War was the perfect way for both countries to ratchet up nationalism and divert attention from unrest at home. Argentina sent its out-matched army to invade the islands in April 1982 and retreated ten weeks later with a new appreciation for Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, one of the most equipped in the world. End of story.
Yet the pointlessness of the actual war overshadows the true conflict. Beyond nationalist pride, what is the real fuss over these frigid islands? Upon closer look at what control of the Falklands actually means for the British today – between the sale of fishing licenses, oil exploitation, increased militarization, and access to the Antarctic – it turns out that the measly comb so many have mocked is made out of solid gold.
History and International Law
The conflict over the Falklands stretches far beyond the war in 1982 and involves an endless list of UN resolutions (issued and ignored), sovereignty claims, bilateral talks and unilateral actions.
Britain successfully colonized the islands in 1833, 26 years after two unsuccessful attempts to capture Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires. At the time, a tiny gaucho population under the authority of Argentine colonel, Jose Maria Pinedo, inhabited the islands. The colonel was asked to remove the Argentine flag, replace it for a British one, and get lost. Without the numbers to mount any defense, he obeyed, and the islands have been under British control ever since.
Control of islands nearly 13,000km from the shores of the UK and 500km off the coast of Argentina didn’t rustle many international feathers until the 1950s and 60s, when decolonization movements around the world gave impetus to milestone UN resolutions like 1514 – passed in 1960 – that supported independence movements of colonized countries and peoples. The General Assembly then passed Resolution 2065 in 1965, which specifically acknowledged the conflict over the islands and called upon both sides to “proceed without delay” in negotiations and to refrain from taking unilateral decisions or actions. The resolution goes on to say that it “was prompted by the cherished aim of bringing an end everywhere to colonialism in all of its forms, one of which covers the case of the Falkland Islands.”
It was the first of 11 UN resolutions regarding the conflict, eight of them issued after the 1982 war and the most recent passed in 2010 by the UN Special Committee on Decolonization. Each one restates the previous, with the acknowledgement of a colonial situation and a request for a peaceful and negotiated settlement of the dispute. Yet despite Argentina’s continued pleas for international law to be respected, they have done little to change the present situation of the islands.
Status Quo: Profit and Expansion
By ignoring Argentina and the international community and evading serious negotiations, the UK has been able to sustain a position of occupation and unilateral action throughout the years. The status quo has been good to Britain. For example, it has enjoyed over three decades of exclusive rights to the sale of fishing licenses in perhaps the richest waters in the world, as reported by the Food and Agricultural Organisation. When it unilaterally established maritime jurisdiction over the 200 nautical miles surrounding the islands in 1986, and set up the Falklands Islands Fishing Ordinance, it began selling fishing licenses to countries like Poland, Japan, and South Korea. According to a 1997 report in the ‘Maritime Briefing’ on the Falklands, after the ordinance was established, “license fees subsequently brought in several million pounds per year,” with the harvest of squid alone yielding £20.6m in 1992.
Mediated negotiations have historically been shut down due to Britain’s refusal to discuss the issue of “sovereignty”. In fact, the only moment the UK entertained bilateral negotiations was in the 1990s, when Argentina’s neoliberal economic policies lifted restrictions on British imports. The countries signed a Joint Declaration and agreed to “umbrella sovereignty”, whereby no action taken by either government would be interpreted as supporting or rejecting the other’s claim of sovereignty. It was a passive and confounded agreement mostly designed to ease Argentine concerns rather than those of the British.
The Argentine government’s willingness to go along with it was referred to as its “policy of seduction”. Yet it was just unclear who was seducing whom. Though there were joint scientific studies of fish stock, the sale of licenses remained exclusively British. Though the UK allowed families of Argentine soldiers killed during the war to visit the islands, it unilaterally claimed maritime jurisdiction around the South Georgia and South Sandwich islands. And while both countries set up a joint commission in to oversee oil exploration in disputed waters, Britain continued its independent sale of numerous oil licenses.
Oil, Water and the Antarctic
As fish supplies dwindle, securing oil and fresh water reserves has become the main strategic role of the Falklands for Britain. Though scientists had long been suspected there were large oil reserves around the islands, exploration has only begun in the past few years. In February of 2010, British Desire Petroleum began drilling 100km from the capital of the Falklands, Port Stanley, for what may be 200 million barrels of oil worth an estimated £17bn. By May, British Rockhopper Exploration joined the frenzy, along with a host of other companies that have won large contracts for oilrig and equipment services.
Great oil and gas reserves also lie underneath the Antarctic, a continent Britain has also set its sights on. Thanks to its control of the Falklands, it has claimed over 660,000 square miles of Antarctic territory. In May of 2009, before the deadline for countries to make submissions to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, it submitted an additional claim of 386,000 miles of ocean off of its Antarctic holding. Many, including Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, condemned the UK in what is seen as an environmentally dangerous move to secure access to oil, water and other natural resources.
The Antarctic is also the continent that holds 70% of the world’s fresh water reserves, a resource becoming scarcer and more valuable each year. The Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959 has thus far protected the continent’s environment from resource extraction and military activity. However, it neither affirms nor denies territorial claims currently held by seven countries. As access to fresh water becomes more critical, the treaty may become another ideal purported on paper but trampled in practice.
One of the most significant outcomes of the Falklands War was Britain’s construction of the Royal Air Force base called Mount Pleasant, established in 1985. It is complete with four Eurofighter Typhoon jets, transport aircrafts, helicopters, silos for large weapons storage, two runways capable of accommodating heavy aircraft, and last year the Navy deployed attack submarine HMS Sceptre to the area. Currently, more than 2,500 Army, Navy and RAF servicemen and personnel are stationed there.
Though by its own admission the likelihood of an Argentine military attack is slim to none, the military conducts regular exercises simulating invasion that involve heavy artillery fire upon targets off the coast. In October of last year, the base also conducted a series of missile tests that Britain called “routine”. Argentina, backed by Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, called the exercises and tests acts of aggression and lodged a formal complaint to the UN, stating: “A permanent member of the UN Security Council is behaving like something from the colonial past.”
Vice-president of the World Peace Council, Rina Bertaccini, has studied foreign military bases and activity in Latin America for over 30 years. To her, Britain’s military objective is clear: “To maintain military bases, control over maritime routes, and control over the natural assets of the region that they prey on at will.”
Additionally, in March 2010, 150 troops from the 1st Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment arrived at Mount Pleasant to begin training for deployment to Afghanistan to join the other 9,500 British troops stationed there as part of NATO’s continued war. It is a reality that raises questions as to the extent the islands are being used, or could be used, for NATO purposes. Some, like Bertaccini, believe that the difference between the British base and a NATO base is a mere “subtlety”.
“What’s certain,” says Bertaccini, “is that you cannot install a military base with 2,500 troops to defend 2,500 inhabitants, it doesn’t make sense.”
But it is precisely the desires of those 2,500 inhabitants that the UK has used to justify its sovereign claim over the islands. In poll after poll, the people living on the Falklands declare their nationality as British and wish to remain under British authority. Invoking the UN Charter’s principle of self-determination, Britain has stated “there can be no negotiations on sovereignty of the Falkland Islands unless and until such time as the Falkland Islanders so wish.”
But applying the principal of “self-determination” becomes tricky when the population is made up of the same colonizing force that seized the islands. Argentine Minister of Foreign Affairs Rafael Bielsa said before the UN Committee on Decolonization in 2004: “Sustaining the idea the inhabitants of the islands have a right to self-determination would create a territorial dispute of which the country that has implanted them is part of. Meaning, the colonial power would confirm its own usurpation and implicate itself.” In a 2006 address to the same committee, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Jorge Taina said that the inhabitants are a “British population transplanted with the animus to establish a colony.”
While the assertion that the population of the Falklands is “implanted” is strong, census data collected by Britain reveals that it is largely true. In a 2006 report, Argentine congress member Daniel Oscar Gallo and a team of researchers presented a document that revealed that not only are military personnel often included in the count of 2,500 civilians living on the islands, but that just 40% of the population has lived on the islands for more than ten years, and only 42% of the population was born on the island.
Using UK census data, the document claims that “it is impossible to claim the application of principle of self-determination when in an analysis of the demographic of a period of ten years between two censuses, it turns out that more than 57% of the inhabitants over the age of ten have been implanted.”
Future of the Falklands
On this anniversary of the Falklands War, Argentines and Britons alike will mourn the death of soldiers and loved ones sent to battle what was ultimately a senseless war. To truly honour them along with the veterans who have suffered since, we would do well to fully understand the roots of this conflict, why the islands are so strategic and what the future may hold.
At a recent press conference discussing oil scarcity and new exploration, US president Barack Obama assured the North American people that the US government is working with partner nations and industry, and “taking steps to explore potential gas and oil resources off the mid- and south-Atlantic”. It is a statement as vague as it is alarming, as oil exploration and extraction moves forward in the Falklands and the region becomes more and more strategic to global superpowers.
Argentina may be able to diplomatically muscle its way toward negotiations as it has had consistent regional support from Mercosur, Unasur, and the Rio Group. But understanding what Britain stands to lose if it truly engaged in a discussion over Falklands makes it clear why the cries of a far inferior military power like Argentina go ignored. For now and as before, with so much at stake economically and strategically, might will be making right.
Francesca Fiorentini is a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires. She is also an editor of Left Turn magazine and a regular contributor to WarTimes.org.