Rhetoric from the Argentine President Cristina Kirchner regarding Argentina’s long-standing claim to the Falkland, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, has heated up across the past year. Often attributed to speculation of significant oil deposits surrounding the Falkland Islands, the Argentine government appears to have made the issue of sovereignty over the islands it’s foreign policy center piece. It would be unfair to label the Argentine governments increased zeal towards the islands a simple oil grab. After all, Cristina Kirchner has questions to answer regarding reports of significant increases in her personal wealth since coming to power, in part due to what appears to be preferential treatment relating to land purchases. Explanations over Argentina’s economic performance will also be needed. If not to satisfy the Argentine public, then to answer concerns held by the International Monetary Fund relating to the quality of reported economic data. An issue such as sovereignty over the Falkland Islands is a useful tool of distraction and a welcome one no doubt during 2011, Argentina’s General election year. Shrieks of colonialism and militarization are rife, unfortunately substance and reasoning remains sparse.
It has been mentioned that Britain’s proximity to the Falkland Islands, relative to Argentina’s, makes a good case for transfer of sovereignty. There is however no apparent stipulation in International law that defines proximity as a factor of sovereignty. Although countries have exclusive economic zones reaching 200 nautical miles from their coastlines, the Falklands are situated well beyond this. Argentina’s claim to have had sovereignty over the islands in 1833 also appears dubious. Only 5 years earlier had the United Provinces of the River Plate (later to become Argentina), ironically in a bid for colonial expansion and against protest by the British Consulate, attempted to begin settling the islands. Britain, who had made claim to the islands in 1765, requested in 1833 that the administration leave, which they did, albeit unwillingly in the face of a significant military disadvantage. Prior to the involvement of the United Provinces of the River Plate the islands had been claimed by France, Spain and Britain. These territorial disputes had however been resolved without war and there appeared to be no remaining disputes regarding the islands. This may in large part be due to the major powers of the time having other matters of national interest to attend to, as demonstrated by both the British and the Spanish vacating the islands, but leaving plaques to signal ownership of their respected share of the islands. Knowingly having attempted to settle the Falkland Islands, in spite of recognizing Britain’s territorial claim as indicated by requests made to the British Consulate in Buenos Aires prior to travel, does little for Argentina’s argument of sovereignty. Further harmed is Argentina’s endeavor to make itself out as a victim of colonialism in light of its own ambitions at the time.
Indeed, it would seem that Argentina’s own behavior may be the undermining factor in its arguments. The UK discussed passing sovereignty to Argentina during the 1960s and 70s as part of the United Nations committee of 24 on decolonization. During this time both Argentina and the UK pursued a program of increasing reliance of the Falkland Islanders on Argentina in a bid to pass sovereignty quietly, due to objections by Falkland residents who wished to remain under UK sovereignty. In spite of a paper published to the British government in the late 70s, demonstrating the economic benefits and potential growth of the Falklands, it was decided that acting on the information might hurt relations with Argentina. As a result the paper was ignored. In 1982 the Argentine junta of the time invaded the Falkland Islands, starting a war that lasted 74 days and cost the lives of over 900 British and Argentine servicemen as well as 3 islanders. Following the war the UK changed its stance towards the islands. Previously there had been little military presence, but this quickly changed leading to the deployment of marines, fighter aircraft and naval vessels. It also began to consider the possibility for economic expansion, such as oil exploration.
Today, the Argentine government protests Britain’s military presence in the area and claims it is militarizing the South Atlantic. Evidence suggests however that while the technology deployed in the region has advanced, demonstrated by the recent arrival of a type 45 destroyer, Britain’s actual military presence has changed little across the past 3 decades. The recent assertion by the Argentine foreign minister, without evidence, that the UK had deployed nuclear weapons to the area and poses a military threat to Brazil, adds credence to the belief that in lieu of logic and reason the Argentine government is using hot air and hyperbole to distract from domestic issues and push other nations to pressure the UK into engaging in talks on sovereignty. This is something that the British government refuses to do and is in fact incapable of doing. To negotiate sovereignty with Argentina while the Falklands war is still a recent memory and amid the torrent of hostile language and actions flowing from Buenos Aires would be political suicide for David Cameron.
On the issue of colonialism, Argentina would do well to remember that since 1945 Britain has overseen the transfer of independence to 45 former territories. Britain’s argument for maintaining sovereignty regards the right of the residents to self-determination, a key concept and driving force behind the decolonization process. Here in lies the real downfall of the Argentine argument. Demanding control over land inhabited by a group of people who identify themselves with a different culture and nationality, and who strongly oppose such change, is itself colonialism. Admittedly, should significant oil deposits exist and become economically viable to extract then the principle of self-determination could be seen as a convenience for the British government. Nevertheless, Britain maintains the legal and moral high ground. Provided Britain continues to deal firmly and fairly, avoiding the Argentine trap of appearing to bully an economically and militarily weaker nation, this position will not change. As long as Argentina continues its current political posturing and fails to recognize that oil wealth in the South Atlantic would likely mean an economic windfall for businesses in Argentina, it will continue to harm its economy and reputation on the world stage.