Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ron Smith: A New Falklands War?

There is presently a new ‘war of words’ between Argentina and the United Kingdom. Could it escalate into renewed conflict? All the components for a second round of the 1982 war seem to be in place. On the other hand, it would seem to be a high-risk strategy for Argentina, even if they might have more to gain in economic terms than was apparent on the previous occasion. Apart from the fishery resource, the Falklands EEZ now seems likely to produce oil in substantial quantities.

President Kirschener has a number of political problems to which a triumphant recovery of ‘Las Malvinas’ might seem a solution.

Her popularity is on the wane and inflation, already over 10%, is rising again, along with the progressive alienation of the land-owning elite. She also has a particular and personal political aspiration. She is well through her second term and is constitutionally barred from standing again. It may be that the public approbation which would surely follow the recovery of a long-lost province, would be enough to secure support for a constitutional amendment, which would enable her to stand again.

As in the run-up to 1982, there are reasons to question the continuing British commitment to the Falklands Island Dependency. It is a very long way from the United Kingdom and a continuing expense to defend. It is also makes for a continuing problem in relations with South American countries and, of course, particularly with Argentina. On the other side, there are more than 3,000 Falkland Islanders, some of whom have been there for eight or nine generations, who are British citizens, and who do not wish to become Argentineans, or to be ‘repatriated’. To propose to do this, would be a major political problem for any British government, Conservative, Labour or ‘Coalition’. It might also be difficult to voluntarily withdraw from the Falklands islands, having regard to the ‘blood and treasure’ invested in their defence only a generation ago.

But there is another consideration as far as Britain is concerned, and it goes beyond issues of sovereignty. This is the matter of a potential scramble for resources in Antarctica, which present international arrangements (such as the Antarctic Treaty) may not be able to handle. There are major players who are not parties to these arrangements and who do not recognise the territorial claims of those (such as New Zealand) who are. There are also conflicting claims on the Antarctic Peninsula, including (crucial for present purposes) those between Argentina and the United Kingdom,. In this context, the Falklands Islands base could be critical. The British admiral, Lord Anson, commented as early as 1740 on the strategic significance of these islands, as commanding passage to the Pacific; and, of course, this was the base for South Atlantic operations in World War Two, as for example, in the Battle of the River Plate. For these sorts of reason, I do not expect Britain to quit the Falklands, notwithstanding continuing diplomatic difficulties with Argentina, and other South American states.

Equally, I do not expect Argentina to make a second attempt to force the issue through invasion. Prospects of achieving the sort of surprise achieved in 1982 have diminished, through the development of technology over the intervening thirty years, and the existence of modern airport facilities would permit the rapid reinforcement of the garrison. No doubt, there are contingency plans for all these things.

However, there is one thing that Argentina could do, and that is to put the matter before the World Court (International Court of Justice). This body was (re)established in the formation of the United Nations in 1945, specifically to provide an alternative to war, via the adjudication of international disputes. In fact, Britain suggested precisely this course of action in 1947, after Argentina revived its claim to the Malvinas in the immediate post-WW2 period. Argentina declined, and the presumption is that it had judged that it would not succeed. There are a number of reasons why this might be thought to be so. The principal of these is the Convention of Settlement of 1850, which accepted British possession of the Islands and that there were no ‘outstanding matters’ that might prevent friendly relations between the states. This is also probably why the United Nations in 1982 accepted a British right to defend its territory. The United Kingdom has exercised sovereignty over the Falkland Islands since 1832, and there have been British settlers there since around the time that Lord Anson spoke. If occupation for such a period does not confer some right of sovereignty, we are left with an enormous potential for claim and counter-claim, regarding the borders of contemporary states.

For all that, there is the matter of proximity to Argentina and Argentina’s general claim to be heir to the Spanish conquerors. It might be that international judicial sentiment has moved on and that a claim could be successful. On the other hand, the legal route would risk an outcome that ended all claims. Probably, Argentina will wish to avoid this and preserve the basis for periodic, righteous clamour, and wait for the United Kingdom to lower its guard. Recent British defence cuts will have been encouraging, but, perhaps, not encouraging enough.

There is another possibility. A future security crisis arising from a squabble for Antarctic resources might force the parties with existing territorial claims to come together to protect their interests. In this context, some settlement of the Falkland issue might become part of a wider agreement between the South American states and South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to engage in collective action. In the meantime, there are always visits of nuclear submarines and princes to complain about, and there is oil to extract. Business as usual, really.

1 comment:

Brian said...

What would be the gain for Argentina?
Even with the state of Britain’s armed forces it would be doubtful that Argentina would win, even if other countries in South America joined in to support. Although not unless of course, they were promised a share of the expected bonanza of oil concessions!
The biggest question would be how would the United Nations deal with this situation? With their usual hatred of any sort of “Colonial” rule, they may well consider that most third world countries would support the Argentina cause. In that case would they tend to ignore the Falkland Islanders and their independence, in favour of placating larger and more influential countries?
If this was an ethnic case it would quite simple, on no account should any indigenous peoples be excluded from their homeland. So are the present Islanders indigenous? The Oxford dictionary seems to back up their claim, but by the same token they are British subjects!
Rattling the sabre and brinkmanship are standard practice, and mere words far removed from action. In any case the United Kingdom’s nuclear submarine(s) now in the area; and are quite capable of delivering a decisive blow if challenged.
Whether this will happen is conjecture, and in the final analysis, it will be a political decision.
Alas regretfully Margaret Thatcher in no longer at the helm, and Ronald Reagan no longer in the White House.