June 14 2012 marked the 30th anniversary of the end of the 1982 Falklands (Malvinas) War. After a decade of relative calm and increased technical cooperation on the Falklands (Malvinas), diplomatic tensions between Argentina and the UK have flared up in the lead-up to this anniversary. A concerted diplomatic push by Argentina has returned the sovereignty dispute over the Falklands (Malvinas) to the top of the foreign policy agenda. On June 14, Argentine President Kirchner made an emotional appeal to the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation for bilateral negotiations on sovereignty between Argentina and the UK. She was the first head of state to speak to the Committee. A recent conference at the University of Cambridge explored why the Islands remain so deeply rooted in the Argentine psyche.
The dispute over the Falklands (Malvinas) has returned centre stage just as the prospects of substantial hydrocarbon reserves in the seas surrounding the Islands greatly increased the economic stakes of the sovereignty dispute. The promise of an oil boom in the South Atlantic has prompted several companies listed in London, including Falkland Oil and Gas, Borders and Southern Petroleum, Rockhopper, Desire Petroleum and Argos Resources, to survey the area. They obtained exploration licenses from the Falklands administration in 2011, which drew strong criticism from Argentina. Earlier, both Argentina and the UK had anticipated that cooperation in matters of natural resources was desirable, given the uncertainty generated by their sovereignty dispute.
In 1995, Argentina and the UK had adopted the Joint Declaration on Cooperation over Offshore Activities in the South West Atlantic. They established a joint committee to recommend measures on the development of hydrocarbon resources, among others, and a Special Area of Cooperation in the seas between the Islands and mainland Argentina. The main aim was to foster investments by oil companies. The question of sovereignty, Argentina’s principal concern, was however reserved. In 2007, Argentina withdrew from the 1995 Declaration on Hydrocarbons, frustrated over the unwillingness of the British government to negotiate on sovereignty.
Over the last seven months, the dispute has intensified. In December 2011, Argentina had convinced MERCOSUR countries to refuse landings of ships flying the Falklands flag at their ports, though they could easily re-flag to able to call at these ports. In January 2012, Argentina deplored the “militarisation of the dispute”, and logged a formal complaint with the United Nations. Specifically, Argentina objected to the deployment of an advanced British nuclear warships to the Falklands (Malvinas) and the temporary stationing of Prince William as an RAF search and rescue pilot on the Islands.
In February 2012, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States stated that the two state parties should peacefully resolve their sovereignty dispute over the Falklands (Malvinas), and recalled that the OAS had called for such negotiations by consensus since 1988. Soon thereafter, a union of Argentina’s transport workers union announced that British ships would face delays in calling at Argentine ports. In March 2012, Peru rallied to the Argentine cause and turned away a British warship that was due to dock in Lima. The Argentine government called on large Argentine companies to look for alternatives to imports produced by British companies. In March 2012, Argentina threatened legal action against any company, including its advisors, engaged in exploring hydrocarbons in the seas surrounding the Falklands (Malvinas).
In May 2012, the Argentine government commissioned an ad showing the captain of Argentina’s Olympic land hockey team training on the Falklands (Malvinas) that ended with the provocative slogan “to compete on British soil, we train on Argentine soil”. After an uproar in the UK, the British-owned agency issued a formal apology. The International Olympic Committee (followed by a similar statement from the Argentine Olympic Committee) declared:
The Olympic Games should not be a forum to raise political issues and the IOC regrets any attempts to use the spotlight of the games for that end.
The British response to Argentina’s increasing the pressure on the Falklands (Malvinas) was as firm as it was predictable. Prime Minister Cameron reiterated his government’s unconditional support for the Falklands (Malvinas) to remain a British Overseas Territory, in line with the wishes of its inhabitants. The British government has been explicit that it would not hesitate to defend the Falklands (Malvinas) in case of another attack on British territory. According to the UK, the future status of the Falklands (Malvinas) is a matter for the inhabitants themselves to decide, in line with the principle of self-determination. Argentina denies that the right of self-determination applies to the inhabitants of the Falklands (Malvinas), as they are not a, in Argentina’s view, a “colonial people”, but instead consisted mainly of European settlers.
On June 12, the government of the Falklands announced that a referendum will be held in the first half of 2013 to gauge the wishes of the inhabitants – a move that is reminiscent of the referendum held in respect of Gibraltar back in 1967, in which more than 99 percent of Gibraltarians voted to retain their link with the United Kingdom, rather than them becoming part of Spain. The British Prime Minister, in support of the referendum, said:
Next year’s referendum will determine beyond doubt the views of the people of the Falklands. Britain will respect and defend their choice. We look to all UN members to live up to their responsibilities under the UN charter and accept the islanders’ decision about how they want to live.