With the Argentine government recently accusing Britain of using ‘an unjustified defence of self-determination’ to maintain a military stronghold in the Falklands and the imminent 30th anniversary of the 1982 Falklands War fast approaching, it may come as no surprise that tensions between the two countries are running high. The Argentine government has persuaded Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Venezuela and Brazil – its partners within the Mercosur trading bloc – to deny ships that fly the flag of the Falkland Islands entry to their ports in December 2011. Argentina says the Falkland Islands’ flag is illegal. To accept it would be to recognise British sovereignty over the Islands.
The British government has responded by allowing Falklands’ ships to fly the Union Jack, circumventing the ban. Most of the Mercosur states support this move. They don’t wish to be engaged in any form of conflict with Britain, and to prevent access to ships that fly Britain’s national emblem would be contrary to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. They could still decide to make life difficult for the British and for the Falkland Islanders, but most Mercosur members wish to maintain good relations with both Argentina and the UK.
Yet Mercosur members have expressed an agreement with Argentina regarding its sovereignty claims over the islands, as have the Union of South America (UNASUR) and several Caribbean members of the Bolivian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA group). They are keen for the UK and Argentina to settle this matter.
The UN has been calling for the two countries to discuss the issue since 1966, and it would like them to resume the talks that failed prior to the 1982 conflict. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is trying to isolate Britain by gaining international support for her cause. Currently holding the temporary Presidency of Mercosur, Argentina is in a good position to do so.
But there could be more trouble ahead in the guise of an attempt to ban flights between Punta Arenas in Chile and Mount Pleasant Airport in the Falkland Islands. Argentina has already stepped up the pressure by making a formal complaint to the UN, claiming that Britain is militarising the South Atlantic by sending a nuclear-armed submarine and the Royal Navy’s most sophisticated warship, HMS Dauntless, to the Falkland Islands.
Argentina has also expressed anger about HRH Prince William’s tour of duty to the islands. The British government argues that this kind of deployment is nothing more than routine, and the militarisation of the islands over the past 30 years has been due to Argentina’s aggression in 1982. A UK FCO spokesperson adds that the UK has administered the Falkland Islands ‘peacefully and effectively for nearly 180 years, and the UK has no doubt about its right of sovereignty over them and the surrounding maritime areas.’
So in spite of effectively losing the 74-day conflict, which began on 2 April 1982 with an invasion of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia after the outcome of US-backed talks was rejected by Argentina on 1 March 1982, the country has never renounced its sovereignty claim over the islands. To give up this ambition of reclaiming the islands, which were annexed by the British on 2 January 1833, would be political suicide for any Argentine government. For Britain to give up the islands would amount to the same prospect.
‘There is a strong belief at all levels of society in Argentina that the Falklands – the Malvinas as they call them – are part of the country’s national identity’, says Dr Francisco Panizza – Reader in Latin American Politics, Department of Government at LSE. He agrees that the islands’ natural resources, including fishing and hydrocarbons, may be behind some of the reasons for Argentina’s verbal sabre-rattling. While Argentina is an oil-producing country, its oil industry has suffered from low investment causing production to fall.
Successive Argentine governments have also claimed that the Argentine population was expelled back in 1833, but contemporary sources suggest that the colonists were encouraged to remain under Luis Vernet’s deputy, Matthew Brisbane. Vernet, a merchant from Hamburg, was granted consent in 1828 to establish a settlement on East Falkland with the agreement of both the British and Argentine authorities.
Yet five years later Lieutenant Colonel José María Pinedo, commander of the United Provinces of South America’s schooner called the Sarandi, was commanded by Captain John James Onslow of the Royal Navy to replace the Argentine flag with a Union Jack and remove himself and his forces from the islands. Argentines therefore see the action of their president and its last military junta, General Galtieri, in 1982 as a reclamation of Argentina’s sovereign territory rather than as an invasion.
Yet this wasn’t perhaps the main reason why Galtieri decided to go to war with Britain. He was unpopular at home, struggling for political survival and, like today, the country suffered from high inflation which reached extreme levels of up to 130 per cent. For a moment the Argentine population rallied around him, but the defeat of his forces in 1982 only served to force him out of power and it led to the restoration of democracy. It also led to the re-election of Mrs Thatcher in England as her own popularity increased.
Britain’s economy was also in a bad state at that time, and 30 years on, the UK is once again experiencing a period of ‘austerity’. The issue could thus be a useful distraction for both sides, but Argentina is unlikely to take up arms today. Neither side wants a military conflict. The UK’s FCO spokesperson explains: ‘We want to have a full and friendly relationship with Argentina, as neighbours in the South Atlantic, but we will not negotiate away the human and political rights of the Falkland Islands’ people.’
Member of the Legislative Assembly of the Falkland Islands, Barry Elsby, argues: ‘We are British and wish to remain British, and so how can anyone not let us decide our future?’ He says the British government is just protecting the islanders’ rights and that is exactly what they want it to do. ‘People will always talk about oil, but the fundamental line is that Britain is protecting a small country from the harassment of a large one’, Elsby argues. He’s referring to the threat that companies will be denied access to Argentine markets if they do business with the Falkland Islands.
Elsby highlights that Chile will be the least willing Mercosur member to upset Britain as the country enjoys a good relationship with Britain, and Chileans work and live quite happily on the Islands. However, today Britain would not be able to count on Chile for military support as it did in 1982 if there were a new military conflict with Argentina. Relations between Argentina and Chile have since improved.
‘The entrenched antagonism between Argentina and Chile has been replaced by collaboration, and civilian rule has had an impact and today their politics focuses on co-operation with Mercosur’, says Nigel Inkster, Director for Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The countries of Mercosur are therefore keen to show solidarity with one another by creating a collective and strategic identity that didn’t exist 30 years ago. Yet Argentina could still risk the wrath of its partners if it pushes its strategy too far.
Argentina’s current policy might fail; the question of sovereignty can only be solved if the Falkland Islands’ government is involved in any negotiations. Argentina can therefore blockade the Magellan Straits like they did in 2009, or stop flights between the Falklands and Punta Arenas, but nothing will otherwise change. The islanders wish to maintain their right of self-determination, and can’t and won’t accept the Falkland Islanders’ position.
The dispute will thus continue while neither party agrees to compromise, but the islanders themselves would prefer to be on amicable terms with Argentina. The only kind of compromise they’d be willing to accept is of the economic variety. So what will happen next in this current ‘war’? No-one but the Argentine government really knows. The next move is in President Kirchner’s hands.