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Explainer: What's going on in the Falkland Islands?

Tensions are rising between Argentina and the UK over a group of tiny islands in the South Atlantic Ocean but why?

The Falkland Islands are known as Las Malvinas to Argentina which lays claim to them
The Falkland Islands are known as Las Malvinas to Argentina which lays claim to them
Image: Wikicommons

A CONSERVATIVE BRITISH government is engaged in a war of words with a nationalist Argentinian administration. Thirty years on from the Falklands War, you could be forgiven for thinking history is repeating itself.

This April will mark 30 years since the start of the conflict between Argentina’s military junta – led by General Leopoldo Galtieri - and Britain – led by Margaret Thatcher – that centred on control of the tiny South Atlantic islands known as the Falklands to the British and Las Malvinas to the Argentines.

Now, a new dispute has broken out after British Prime Minister David Cameron accused Cristina Fernandez’s government in Argentina of a “colonialist” attitude over its claim to the islands. Fernandez has hit back saying that Cameron’s words are “nonsense”.

But why the harsh diplomatic tones over a set of small islands in the Atlantic Ocean? TheJournal.ie takes a closer look…

What and where are the Falklands Islands?

The Falkand Islands are located in the South Atlantic Ocean, about 250 miles off the coast of mainland South America. They consist of two main islands known as East and West Falkland and over 700 lesser islands. The capital is Port Stanley – located on West Falkland – and the total population is around 2,500 residents in addition to 1,700 people stationed at a British military complex.

The islands are officially defined as an Overseas British Territory which means that while they have some level of self-governance but their head of state is Queen Elizabeth and defence and foreign affairs matters are handled by the parliament London.  There are also currently around 1,700 British forces based at a military garrison, west of Port Stanley.

What has Argentina got to do with it?

Argentina claims that the islands are theirs under an agreement when it became independent from Spain in 1811. They claim that the islands – known to them as Las Malvinas – were under their control until the UK exceeded its authority by expelling Argentine settlers in 1833.

The islanders themselves reject the Argentine claims and largely want to maintain the status-quo. They have some level of self -governance, their own currency and they are happy to remain as an Overseas British Territory.

Argentina simply does not recognise this and wants the islands under their control. Hence the Falklands War 30 years ago.

The Falklands War?

In April 1982, six years after the Argentinian military assumed control of the country in coup, the forces of president Galtieri invaded the islands 400 miles away and asserted their control. The invasion was designed to bolster national pride at a time when there were widespread human rights abuses and economic troubles in Argentina.

An outraged British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered a naval task force to the region some 8,000 miles away from mainland UK to engage with the Argentine navy and air force and ultimately wrestle the islands from Argentina’s control.

The resulting war lasted 74 days and cost the lives of 259 Britain servicemen and 649 Argentinian soldiers as well as the lives of three female residents on the islands.

The main incidents included the controversial sinking of the Argentine ship the ARA General Belgrano on 1 May. The ship was was hit by two of three torpedoes fired from the HMS Conqueror and sank with the loss of 368 lives.

The Sun newspaper courted infamy with its ‘Gotcha’ frontpage headline the next day, heralding the achievements of “our lads”:

But questions were raised about the justification for the attack after it emerged that a peace plan was being formulated by Peru hours beforehand. Furthermore the ship was said to be outside the 200-mile exclusion zone – imposed around the islands by the British the previous month – and heading back towards mainland Argentina, theoretically posing no threat to British forces.

After the war, Thatcher was taken to task by a caller to BBC’s Nationwide programme but the PM defended her decision to order the Belgrano’s sinking claiming British servicemen were at risk:

YouTube: kittybrew

In response to the Belgrano sinking, the HMS Sheffield was attacked resulting in the death of 20 British forces. But the Belgrano attack had a significant effect on Argentina whose entire fleet remained in port for the rest of the war even as it escalated in the air and on the ground.

In mid-May Britain rejected a peace proposal put forward by the UN and days later landed near Port San Carlos on East Falkland. On 28 May it took Argentine positions at Darwin and Goose Green with the loss of 17 men. The Argentine death toll was ten times greater and 1,400 prisoners were taken in a significant breakthrough in the conflict.

Within weeks the British advanced to the capital of Port Stanley and forced nearly 10,000 Argentine troops to down their arms. A ceasefire was declared and on 20 June Britain declared an end to hostilities.

What happened next?

The war had significant consequences for both countries. While Thatcher toasted victory at home and sailed to re-election by a landslide in 1983, in Argentina many lost faith in the power of the military with Galtieri deposed three days later. Eventually the country returned to democratic government in its first free elections in ten years in 1983.

The Falkland Islanders were given a new lease of life by investment from Britain and a new constitution in 1985 which promoted greater self-governance.

But despite this Argentina still lays claim to the Falkland Islands and nearby South Georgia. In 1994 its constitution reaffirmed this when it stated that the country must pursue its claim in a manner “respectful of the way of life of their inhabitants and according to the principles of international law”.

What’s happening now?

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the dispute but there have also been significant tensions in recent years over the issue of oil exploration around the islands.

Argentina has accused Britain of “taking Argentine resources” from the islands and the waters around them. Bloomberg reported earlier this month that oil explorers are targeting 8.3 billion barrels in the waters around the islands this year. That’s three times the UK’s reserves.

Last December, the Mercosur countries – including Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay – announced that it would ban ships sailing under the Falkland Islands flag from docking at its ports in an apparent show of solidarity with Fernandez’s government.

Though Fernandez has repeatedly said she will use diplomacy to bring the islands back under Argentina’s control, David Cameron recently convened Britain’s National Security Council to ensure that military defences are ready to defend the islands.

In perhaps a further demonstration of British pride over its administration of the islands, Prince William is due to be sent to the military base there next month as part of his role as an RAF pilot.

Back in Argentina, this week hundreds of activists descended on the British embassy in Buenos Aires to call on Britain to relinquish its control of the islands:

YouTube: Asithappenslive

What happens next?

The future cannot be predicted but there are a number of differences between now and 30 years ago which indicate that any sort of military conflict is currently unlikely.

Perhaps most importantly Fernandez has stated that she favours diplomacy and unlike the military junta in the 1970s and 1980s she does not have to deflect from significant trouble at home. She was recently re-elected with 54 per cent of the vote, her nearest challenger won only 17 per cent.

Meanwhile for the  UK, a conflict in the Falklands is not what it needs. With the economy in the tank and the government slashing budgets, including in the military, it can ill-afford an expensive conflict thousands of miles away. It is already still involved in one in Afghanistan.

While current tensions are unlikely to dissipate any time soon it will take an extraordinary turn of events for there to be a repeat of what happened 30 years ago.

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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