Thirty years later: Falklands flashpoint for more Malvinas mayhem?

Argentina on Feb. 12 agreed to accept UN mediation in an escalating dispute with Britain over the South Atlantic archipelago known to one nation as the Malvinas and to the other as the Falkland Islands. Buenos Aires and London have in recent days waged a fierce war of words over the sparsely populated islands, some 460 kilometers off of the Argentine coast—less than two months ahead of the anniversary of the brief 1982 Falklands War. The war cost 1,068 Argentine and 255 British lives, ending with Argentina failing to hold the islands but refusing to acknowledge British rule over them. The UK is contracting a Zimbabwean team to clear out mine fields left by the 74-day Argentine “occupation.” Argentina now accuses Britain of provocatively sending warships to the archipelago—a move London says is a routine exercise. (Xinhua, Feb. 12; CNN, Feb. 9; The Falklands Conflict website)

Argentina said Feb. 10 it had information the UK had sent a nuclear-armed submarine to the Malvinas/Falklands. Foreign Minister Hector Timerman told reporters at the UN that a Vanguard-class nuclear-equipped submarine had been spotted as part of Britain’s deployment. HMS Vanguard is one of four British submarines armed with Trident nuclear missiles. The Royal Navy would not confirm the presence of any submarine near the Falklands, but was reported in the British press to have sent a Trafalgar-class vessel, which cannot carry nuclear weapons. It is not in dispute that Britain has deployed the destroyer HMS Dauntless, one of the world’s most powerful. The force includes Prince William, serving as a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot, who Timerman said “will arrive on our soil in the uniform of a conquistador.”

Timerman, who made his claims at a New York press conference with maps and photographs, said the introduction of the submarine would violate the 1968 Treaty of Tlatelolco for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean. He charged that Britain was using an “unjustified defense of self-determination” to maintain a military base on the Falklands, allowing strategic domination of the South Atlantic. And he blasted Prime Minister David Cameron for recently accusing the Argentines of acting like “colonialists,” calling it “perhaps the last refuge of a declining power.” He added: “It is the last ocean that is controlled by the United Kingdom—Britannia rules only the South Atlantic.” Quoting English dissident John Lennon, he urged the British government to “give peace a chance.”

The claims were of course dismissed by the British ambassador to the UN at his own press conference in New York. Sir Mark Lyall Grant called the claim that the UK is militarizing the region “manifestly absurd.” He placed the blame on Argentina, saying: “Before 1982 there was a minimal defense presence in the Falkland Islands. It is only because Argentina illegally invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 that since then we had to increase our defence posture. Nothing has changed in that defense posture in recent months or recent years. The only thing that appears to have changed is the politics in Argentina.” But he added: “We do not comment on the disposition of nuclear weapons, submarines.”

Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner has made an issue of the Malvinas in recent weeks as she prepares for a re-election campaign. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on both countries to avoid an “escalation.” (AP, The Telegraph, Feb. 11; Defence Management, Feb. 8)

The first European documented to have sighted the islands was Englishman John Davis in 1592, although Patagonian indigenous peoples had likely known of them. Some historians claim the islands had been earlier sighted by a Portuguese voyage, with Amerigo Vespucci on board, around 1500, or by Ferdinand Magellan (a Portuguese sailing for Spain) in his expedition around Cape Horn in 1519. In any case, Davis neither claimed them nor named them. The islands were first (immodestly) named the Sebalds by the Dutch navigator Sebald de Weert in 1600. Their English name was appointed by the British captain John Strong, who sailed the strait between the two major islands in 1690 and christened them after the Treasurer of the Navy, Viscount Falkland. Strong landed but left no settlement; it is unlikely he was the first European to sail the strait, and probably not the first to land.

The earliest territorial claim to the islands, with a settlement at Port St. Louis, was made in the name of France by Louis Antoine de Bougainville in 1764; his name for the islands, les Malouines, was inspired by Saint-Malo, Brittany, where many French sailors hailed from. A year later, in 1765, Commodore “Foul-Weather Jack” Byron claimed possession for the British crown on grounds of “prior discovery” (presumably Davis’), and established a tenuous settlement on Saunders, one of the smaller outlying islands. Under 1767 codicils to the 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, France ceded its claim to Spain, and 1771 amendments to the 1750 Treaty of Madrid next conceded the Spanish claim to Britain. Yet Britain did not establish actual control of the islands at this time; they remained under the de facto administration of Spain’s Viceroyalty of RĂ­o de La Plata. Charles Darwin on the Beagle in April 1833 noted passing “these miserable islands” seemingly forgotten by the world. Later that year, the islands finally became a formal British colony. But by then, independent Argentina had already made a claim to the islands, farming the fishing rights out to a Buenos Aires fleet in 1826.

This led to a brief crisis, with conflicts between the Argentine fishing fleet and New England-based sealers and whalers prompting US intervention. In 1831 the USS Lexington was dispatched to flush out the settlement established by the Argentine fleet. The US envoy in Buenos Aires declared the archipelago a no-man’s land—res nullius. But that five-year Argentine settlement, expelled by a third-party force, was probably the most consequent and assertive up to that time, and is the basis of Buenos Aires’ contemporary claim. (Financial Times, BBC News, Feb. 11; The Guardian, Feb. 2)

The Argentine military effort of 1982 was an ill-conceived move by a ruling junta faced with declining popularity at home, and only succeeded in prompting the UK to beef up its naval policing of the islands. In 1985, the local Falklands Island Government, which administrates the UK Overseas Territory, was authorized by London to exercise fishing rights in a 320-kilometer “economic zone”—placing its fleets in direct conflict with Argentina, which claimed similar rights to overlapping waters.

Of the islands’ 3,000 inhabitants today, only 29 are Argentines. The dispute again came to the fore in 2009, when the UK rejected a request by Argentina for talks on the future sovereignty over the islands. In December, the Argentine congress passed a law officially laying claim to the Falklands/Malvinas, along with South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which lie further out at sea—a move rejected by the UK. In February 2010, tensions rose further when a British company began exploring for oil near the Falklands’ waters. That same month, Argentina introduced new rules requiring all ships travelling to the islands through its waters to have a permit. Late last year, the Argentine government persuaded members of the South American trading bloc Mercosur to close their ports to ships flying the Falklands flag. Earlier this year, British Energy Secretary Chris Huhne conceded that initial oil exploration in waters around the archipelago had been “disappointing.” (La NaciĂłn, Argentina, BBC News, Feb. 11; UKPA, Jan. 26)

See our last posts on Argentina, the UK and the Malvinas/Falkalnds.