Why do Argentina and the UK disagree over the Falkland Islands?
Argentina thinks that the Falkland Islands (or The Malvinas, as they know them) are their own territory because they are only 200 miles off the Argentinian coast. As far as they are concerned this is the single most important and emotional issue of foreign policy. Britain claims that the islands have been a legal colony for nearly 200 years, although shortly before the 1982 war, the Thatcher government was trying to shed this responsibility. They had a long term proposal for joint custody for 50 years followed by a transfer into Argentinian control. But the islanders themselves were adamant that they wanted British rule, as the Argentine Junta in the 1970s had been a vicious dictatorship. When we tried to save money by withdrawing our patrol ships, the Argentinians thought we were no longer concerned, and mounted an invasion. Faced with this, British forces were sent to recover the islands from 8000 miles away, which they achieved in less than three months of brief and bitter conflict.
Why, after almost 30 years, has the dispute been brought back to international attention?
The Argentines, despite losing the war, never gave up their claim to the Malvinas, and continued to say “The Malvinas are Argentinian”. Now that Argentina has overcome terrible economic problems, the islands have come back to the top of their list of issues. Their glamorous female president has started blowing the Malvinas trumpet knowing she will gain huge popularity for it. Whereas in ‘82 the Argentinian regime was despicable and despotic, they can now claim to be an effective democracy. The Argentinians are not suggesting they’re going to invade, but are claiming that Britain is “militarising” the South Atlantic by sending a new warship to conduct an offshore patrol, though it is actually replacing an older one. There is known to be oil in the offshore waters, which raises the stakes, though it may be difficult and damaging to extract it. The UN retains its policy of decolonisation and self-determination, but the islanders themselves are not interested, and their views have to be taken into account.
Will the Falklands remain British?
By invading in 1982, the Argentinians turned the Falklands into a much more important issue than it had previously been for Britain. After fighting for the Islands and losing over 250 lives, it is difficult to negotiate them away. For as long as Mrs Thatcher remains alive, and for as long as there is a Conservative government in power they will stay British, and Labour won’t give them up soon either. In the long term we might prefer to be rid of them, but now we’ve fought over the islands that is much more difficult.
What is the future of the Falklands dispute?
The Argentinians will always want the Malvinas and they will never be happy until they own them. Argentina should be a close ally and important trading partner. They had been very pro-British before the war, and in 1982 many of their weapons were British and they even had two modern British warships. The irony is that if the Argentines had not invaded we might have agreed a handover timetable by now; but equally it was the trauma of the war that has created a functioning democracy which was not there before. They now seek a political resolution and are pressurising Britain through the UN and other South American countries. There is no question of a war: the islands are much more strongly defended today than they were in 1982, but the question is how long we want to maintain this expensive level of defence, in the face of possible international disapproval.
Rupert Nichol is a retired naval officer who served in HMS Hermes during the Falklands conflict in 1982, and was liaison officer with embarked media teams from the BBC and ITN