Moribund Negotiations

June 20, 2005 10:50 | by Kathryn Tarker

Argentina Presses the Falklands/Malvinas Dispute

Argentine foreign minister Rafael Bielsa this week addressed the UN C24 Decolonization Committee after raising the Falklands sovereignty question at the Organisation of American States summit in Ft. Lauderdale, Texas. Almost simultaneously, an Argentine court renewed the ineffective demand that former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher be put on trial for the 1982 sinking of Argentina's cruiser, the Belgrano. Current Argentine President Néstor Kirchner, despite a history of opposition to his country's brutal military junta of 1976-1983, his rejection of neoliberal economic policies and his advocacy for the forced retirement of Dirty War officers, continues to aggressively promote one of the bastard children of that era, the Falkland dispute. As such, he follows in the reprehensible footsteps of former Argentine President Carlos Menem. Fishing and oil exploration on the Falklands are booming, bringing far too much economic incentive not to fuel a continuing struggle that served as a cover for a raw power grab by the cynical military junta that attempted to substitute nationalism for memory of the massive human rights violations committed by Argentina's armed services. Meanwhile, the Falkland Islands inhabitants' rights were ignored. Kathryn Tarker explains what's going on.

As anticipated, Argentine foreign minister Rafael Bielsa raised the Falklands, also known as Malvinas, question at the Organization of American States (OAS) summit in Ft. Lauderdale (June 5-7, 2005) and again in a pointed document on June 10, all as a lead-in to his June 15 presentation on the issue before the UN C24 Decolonization Committee. The decades-old, ongoing sovereignty dispute is between Argentina and the UK over the South Atlantic islands, whose 3,000 inhabitants are currently self-governed by a tiny civilian administration and protected by a British garrison as a UK overseas territory. The OAS has decked the issue by holding, in a number of past declarations, that the dispute is "of permanent hemispheric interest" and that the issue should continue to be examined until Argentina and the UK reach "a definitive solution," a relatively non-committed stand that Bielsa cited during his presentation.

Argentina's appeal to the OAS and Bielsa's statement at the UN were the latest developments after a summary rejection of the country's proposals to negotiate the Falklands dispute at the UN decolonization seminar held in mid-May at St. Vincent and the Grenadines. On this occasion, Argentina called for greater restrictions on Falkland islanders' self-determination only to be skilfully rebutted by Gibraltar Opposition Leader Joe Bossano. Last weekend, the lower house of the Argentine Parliament passed a motion demanding that former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stand trial for her order to sink the Argentine cruiser Belgrano during the 1982 Falklands war, which, Argentina claims, was sunk after a cessation of the conflict had been declared. All of this goes to prove that the heat generated by the territorial conflict is far from over and is certainly not likely to be resolved peacefully while Argentina sticks to its relatively hard-line, no-compromise position.

Early History

The 1982 war was brief but consequential; it was a political turning point for the Argentine military junta under General Leopoldo Galtieri and for the British government under Thatcher. The war was initially popular in Argentina, as it was instigated by the Galtieri administration's calculated desire to feed off the bounteous anti-British sentiment in the country, and to divert growing domestic opposition to his brutal junta and the country's increasingly ruinous economy under its jurisdiction. However, such demagoguery lost its power when the war ended in disaster for Buenos Aires. Military rule was pressured to end in favour of a return to constitutional government and Galtieri was persuaded to resign even before the formal end of the conflict. In Britain, winning the war was a lustrous boost to Thatcher's standing, and she was able to remain in power until 1990.

The sovereignty issue itself, which has murky foundations, dates back hundreds of years before the 1982 war. Both parties have previously occupied the islands for long periods at a time, and Britain forcibly seized control of them in 1833. Argentina bases its ownership claims on papal bulls inherited from Spain, continuous colonization and geographical proximity; the UK points to its maintenance of the islanders' right to self-determination and to its long-term administration of the archipelago.

Sovereignty talks between Britain and Argentina were instituted in 1964 by the UN Committee for Decolonization and were haltingly under way when forty Argentine scrap metal workmen were sent by their foreman to the South Georgia islands on March 19, 1982 to dismantle a defunct whaling station. They landed without permission of the British Antarctic Survey base at Grytviken, raised the Argentine flag, sang their national anthem and refused to leave. This was the second unauthorized landing by a scrap metal contingent in roughly one month. Britain lodged a formal complaint and began to anticipate hostilities. On April 2, Galtieri led his country into a war that he could only have won with total Latin American support, U.S. neutrality, or a more diplomatic response from Britain. However, the ruling Argentine junta was disappointed on all counts.

In Search of Allies

The OAS initially condemned the Argentine invasion as a violation of its non-intervention agreement, negating the possibility of highly organized Latin American support. Galtieri had well-founded grounds for expecting the Reagan administration, with its policy of courting Latin American dictators, to at least remain neutral in the war, in light of the known pro-Argentine proclivities of UN ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick. However, the U.S. finally tipped its initial uncertainty about the issue in favour of lukewarm support, in the form of intelligence data and some resupply of weaponry, for its faithful NATO ally. Most frustratingly to the Galtieri junta, despite signs to the contrary, such as the British Nationality Act of 1981, where islanders' rights to British citizenship were curtailed - Britain refused to be ousted under duress and responded with full military force to the Argentine invasion in an impressive display of ingenuity and brilliant strategy.

During the war, Argentina broke its own pledge not to interfere with the Falkland islanders' mode of life, by doing so in numerous ways. For example, once the capital Port Stanley was occupied, Spanish was made the official language and islanders were required to drive on the right side of the road. These regulations strengthened the already formidable local resentment and distrust of Argentina. From the beginning, Buenos Aires has emphatically ignored the clear opinions of the islanders, who are almost all of British descent and who repeatedly assert their preference that the Falklands remain self-governing while maintaining strong ties to Britain.

To this day, Argentina has not wavered in its position that the islanders were unlawfully planted by a colonial power and as such, deserve to have their voices and rights curtailed. Argentina thought this stance would find acceptance at the UN seminar at St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but found nothing but fierce opposition. Bielsa maintained this as a key point in his June 15 speech to the UN, while also stressing the illegitimacy of Britain's 1833 seizure of the Falklands. In 1996, Argentina, under former President Carlos Menem, warned the UK not to pursue a UN resolution on the self-determination of the islanders, threatening to halt oil and fishing talks with London if the British initiative were to move forward.

Enterprising Argentine Manoeuvres

Despite Argentina's disparagement of the islanders' right to self-determination, it has made remarkably bold overtures to them in the past, especially under Menem and his foreign minister, Guido di Tella. Though Menem vowed in 1998 that his country would never again try to take the Falklands by force, in the mid-nineties, he repeatedly tried to win the islanders over with heavy financial incentives. Sources dispute the exact size of the offerings, with estimates ranging from $800,000 per family to $1.55 million per person for a rejection of British sovereignty.

Argentina's other method of attack has been to scour the international community for any possible signs of support for its cause. While both the EU and the U.S. are firm British allies, the OAS and the UN recognize a need for further negotiations. Brazil and Chile are at the head of widespread but weak Latin American sympathy for the beleaguered Argentine cause.

Individual Argentine stratagems have run the gamut. Opposition to mentioning the Falklands as a UK overseas territory in the draft of the EU constitution for fear that it would institutionalize the Falklands' British status was understandable and found easy support in the Latin American community. However, a pledge of mutual support between Menem and former Chilean President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle in 1999 to push Argentina's claim to the Falklands and to obstruct an out-of-country trial for human rights pariah Augusto Pinochet illustrated the problematic lengths that Argentina will go to in resuscitating the Falklands dispute. The disagreement over the island can still serve as the "last refuge of the scoundrel:" a place where the worst offences and ambitions are purposely disguised by the fine drapery of patriotism.

British Retorts

The European Community instituted sanctions against Argentina during the war and, similarly, one of Britain's immediate responses to the conflict was to institute an arms export embargo against Argentina that remains in place today, but is reviewed on a case by case basis. For example, the embargo was relaxed when internationalist Menem dispatched Argentina's troops into a series of UN peacekeeping commitments: Argentina served alongside Britain as part of the UN task force in Kuwait in 1990 and again in the peacekeeping force in Cyprus in 1993. The UK has also continually maintained its "Fortress Falklands" policy since the war by maintaining a substantial garrison on the islands, now numbering about 500 troops.

Less from genuine moral outrage than from her capacity for selective indignation, Thatcher condemned the Argentine junta as a "tin pot" dictatorship throughout the Falklands conflict. In fact, the UK won the war with significant assistance from Pinochet, whom Thatcher has since lavishly thanked for services rendered - presumably, he is not a "tin pot" dictator in her estimation. This may be because Chile was a de facto UK ally during the war but has since switched sides, much to the confusion of the UK.

Whitehall has not shown any serious desire to alter the crux of the Falklands debate since the war, though it made numerous conciliatory gestures before 1982 that were rejected by the islanders. It also had sent a secret task force led by a nuclear-powered submarine to the Falklands in 1977, out of the fear that a full-scale invasion could take place after 50 Argentine scientists landed there illegally. Argentina and the UK re-established diplomatic relations in 1990, and the UK ultimately relented regarding Argentina's requests for establishing flights and visitation rights to the islands, but the question of sovereignty itself has not been up for discussion. As current UK Prime Minister Tony Blair explained in a 1998 BBC reference, the UK does not regard it as a "fruitful line" to pursue.

Kirchner: No Break with the Past

The recovery of the Falklands islands is an Argentine state policy goal as well as a constitutional mandate. The issue is addressed in the first temporary provision of the Argentine constitution, in which Argentina "ratifies its legitimate and non-prescribing sovereignty over the Falklands, Georgias del Sur and Sandwich del Sur Islands and over the corresponding maritime and insular zones." The constitution asserts that these islands are an "integral part of the national territory" and it contains a pledge to recover them with deference to international law and the islanders' way of life. The mechanism by which this way of life will be protected is, however, not a policy matter or mandate. An Argentine Embassy official told COHA in a recent interview that speculating on how Argentina would treat immigration issues if it gained internationally recognized sovereignty over the Falklands is as unclear as "looking in a crystal ball." The official also confirmed that Argentina still refuses to accept the islanders as an official third party to the negotiations or to recognize the legitimacy of the Falklands government.

As a former member of the 1995 Constituent Assembly, current President Kirchner participated in the amendment of the Argentine constitution; he should be no stranger to the above expanded claims to the Falklands islands which were inserted during the 1995 revisions. Kirchner apparently has not at all rethought Menem's unabashed ambition regarding the Falklands, and as COHA's Argentine Embassy source explained, Argentina will never settle for anything less than complete sovereignty over the islands. Argentina also views every increase in normalization of relations with the Falklands as a step towards cementing its sovereignty claims, as Menem repeatedly had asserted while president.

Kirchner, justifiably hailed as one of Latin America's most admirable New Left presidents, is noted for his clean-up of the Argentine Supreme Court, hounding of military junta human rights violators and his rejection of the cut-throat "Los Chicago Boys" school of neoliberal economics. But most of all, he has become a historic figure for daring to stand up to the IMF and the country's bond holders by renouncing Argentina's foreign debts. However, his uncritical acceptance of the nationalist Falklands cause is a disconcerting blip on his record as the Argentine position actively spurns the islanders' right to self-determination as protected by the first chapter of the UN Charter. Kirchner thus is promoting continued rancour by championing a flawed territorial cause that was violently appropriated by Galtieri and his disgraced military junta's cabal during the Dirty War. Next it was bolstered by the junta's specious apologist, Menem, when it should have been consigned to the dustbin of history on the lost cause basis of territorial sovereignty or settled on the basis of the allocation of earnings from maritime resources found in the Falklands basin. For once, a little less consistency on a diplomatic initiative might have been more desirable. The Argentine cause needs a substantial reconceptualization to become legitimate enough to have a prospect for bringing about a definite solution to the conflict, which is testified by the lack of progress at yesterday's vanished opportunity, the UN Decolonization Committee meeting that is held but once a year.

Minerals and Fishing

Surely Kirchner recognizes that gaining undisputed sovereignty over the islands would not necessarily benefit Argentina beyond the simple stoking of national pride. What is really of importance is the distribution of resources in the region. As early as April 2, 1982, the day of the Argentine invasion, COHA reported that oil might well be a significant factor in Galtieri's aggression. With the UK and Argentina currently splitting the revenue from the Falkland Islands government's lucrative sale of fishing licenses (which help make the Falkland Islanders' GDP per capita one of the highest in the hemisphere) and oil exploration fees, the allocation of earnings from resources are what is important in today's dispute over the islands' status. The UK and Argentina signed a Joint Declaration of Cooperation over Offshore Activities in the Southwest Atlantic in 1995, which established a "special area of cooperation" in the most uncontested part of the quarrelled-over zones. In this area the parcelling is at its most balanced. Companies are expected to operate in this zone on a joint venture basis, with half of the area licensed by the Falklands government and the other half by Argentina.

Currently, seismic exploration for oil is moving full-steam ahead. The Spanish petroleum company Repsol YPF is planning heavy investment in Argentina and the South Atlantic in association with Enarsa, the Argentine government's energy corporation. The British company FOGL also has decided to expand its oil search, especially in light of its late May finding of plentiful drill site possibilities. Conditions for petroleum drilling have proven surprisingly favourable on the islands, according to the Falkland Islands Government Department of Mineral Resources. Of course, disputes over oil in the Falklands might be used as a springboard for wrangling over oil exploration in the greater Antarctic region, where Argentina and Great Britain have additional overlapping claims.

Gold and diamonds are also suspected to be part of the islands' resource base. Gold grains have been panned from numerous streams while the presence of diamonds is somewhat less certain. The expectation of finding such treasures rests on that fact that the Falklands were once connected to South Africa along the edge of the Gondwanaland super continent and might share exploitable natural similarities. Both fishing and minerals exploitation carry risks. An oil spill off the Falklands coast could affect Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Antarctica, and over-fishing has threatened the survival of the Illex squid and of its superiors in the food chain. Additionally, there are 117 well-marked but still dangerous mine fields left over from the war implanted with roughly 25,000 mines that could blow up personnel or vehicles, though this hasn't seemed to function as a deterrent to any company or even struck the islanders as a matter of pressing concern.

Smokescreen Solidarity

Even under Kirchner, with a constitutional government trying to legally resolve a territorial dispute, Buenos Aires refuses to recognize that self-determination ought to be the goal of anti-colonial efforts. Additionally, Argentina has at times not erected wholly wise standards in its search for allies; too often, the support it manages to elicit comes from governments or movements with domestic and international records sometimes as questionable as those underlying Galtieri's original invading junta. In 1982, Argentina received serious military aid from its ideological rival Cuba as well as backing from Sandinista Nicaragua and the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas in El Salvador, all backing a government that otherwise despised them and which was killing their counterparts daily in Argentina. In the mid 90s, Buenos Aires found its major ally in Chile, a country trying to save face for Pinochet's leadership role in Operation Condor, the covert 1970s' South American alliance of dictatorships which systematically oppressed and murdered leftist opponents.

Argentina's most respectable support has recently come from the Rio Group (GRIO), which counts 19 South American countries as members, but if it wants to find a final, satisfactory and legitimate way of extracting more benefits from the small islands, it needs to mobilize the UN. Buenos Aires would be wise to revise its approach to an organization that repeatedly has declared the implementation of the right to self-determination should be "carried out freely and without outside pressure," in a form that recognizes the "authentic interests and aspirations" of the people to be decolonized. Because Kirchner's government cannot reconcile itself with this mandate, Bielsa found the same indifferent response at the UN Decolonization Committee meeting that just took place in New York that he got in May at the St. Vincent and the Grenadines UN conference, with the settlement of the sovereignty dispute not making any discernible progress even more than two decades later.

Kathryn Tarker is a Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Founded in 1975, COHA is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. For more information, go to

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