By Peter Cannon
As Argentina has resumed its political campaign against the UK over the Falklands, the UK has become more isolated diplomatically and less able to defend the islands militarily.
Argentina’s political campaign
Last year, Argentina succeeded in reigniting the row over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, attempting to establish an economic blockade against the islands and securing a statement of support at a summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders for its sovereignty claim. i The Argentine continued this diplomatic campaign at the UN General Assembly in September, with Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner telling the assembly: “Once again we have come to claim our sovereign rights over the Malvinas Islands (the Argentine name for the Falklands). It’s not a historic claim but an absolutely present-time claim.” She went on to accuse the UK of the “plundering of natural resources that do not belong to her”, and to claim that “situations and conflicts such as the Malvinas one are clear examples of the fact the Security Council is not working properly and is not preserving peace and security.” ii
With a presidential election due this October, Fernandez de Kirchner has made clear that she is determined to make the Falklands a central theme of her presidency and her re-election campaign. iii This has been demonstrated in a number of new nationalist propaganda initiatives relating to ‘Las Malvinas’. The government recently ordered that every school must have a classroom named after killed in the Falklands War. In addition, it has been ordered that a letter written by a soldier killed in the Falklands, Julio Cao, is to be read to all school pupils in the country as part of the curriculum. iv When announcing these policies, Fernandez de Kirchner confidently added: “I know we are going to recover what belongs to us, the Islas Malvinas.” v At the international level, Argentina has also refused to appoint a new ambassador to the UK, leaving the post vacant in protest. vi
There are obvious domestic reasons for Kirchner seeking to focus attention on the issue of the Falklands, including a track record of presiding over capital flight, higher inflation, declining investor confidence and ongoing indebtedness. vii In addition, there has been a recent corruption scandal involving the Association of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights group, which was supported and sponsored by Fernandez de Kirchner’s predecessor, her late husband Nestor Kirchner. viii Perhaps unsurprisingly, she has faced declining opinion poll ratings, while remaining the most popular candidate for the presidency. ix Professor Mark Jones, an expert in Latin American politics at Rice University in Texas, judged: “Kirchner will use the Falklands issue to score political points with the electorate as well as to distract public opinion from topics that are potentially damaging for the Government.” He also warned people to expect a good dose of “zealous rhetoric.” x
This has certainly been in evidence this summer, with a series of – often personal – verbal attacks on the British Government. After David Cameron stated that the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands was “not negotiable, full stop,” Fernandez de Kirchner described his statement as an “act of arrogance… mediocre and almost stupid”, which “reveals that the UK is a coarse colonial power in decline”. Ironically, she added: “We Argentines never believed in ‘period’, not for human rights or for sovereignty over our Islands”, completely ignoring the human rights of the islanders themselves who wish to remain British and have no desire to become part of Argentina. xi
This was followed by another outburst by Argentine foreign minister Hector Timerman, who said of the UK: “They’re starting to act like bully-boy thugs. They have adopted positions that are outright provocations. We will not succumb to these provocations.” It is difficult to see what behaviour, short of surrendering the islands to Argentina, would not be considered a ‘provocation’ by the Argentine government. As the Henry Jackson Society’s Douglas Murray pointed out: “Argentina is doing what it has always done: play political games. These comments are pretty obscene. The only country that has behaved like a bully boy in relation to the Falklands is Argentina when they decided to invade them. It is easier for Buenos Aires to bash the Brits than get their own house in order, to ratchet up the anti-British sentiment than sort out their economy.” xii
Argentina’s rhetoric recently became even more obscene. After defence secretary Liam Fox answered a question on the Falklands by restating British government’s resolve to maintain British sovereignty, Argentine defence minister Arturo Puricelli claimed: “Only force sustains the fact they can keep hostage the 2.000 ‘Malvinenses’ (Islanders), condemning them to isolation and submission when they are 14.000 kilometres away from their political reference in London.” Of course, it is the Islanders’ wish to remain British, while it is Argentina which has done its best to isolate them and threaten them into submission at every opportunity. xiii
Britain’s diplomatic isolation
Argentina’s rhetoric would be concerning enough on its own. However, the British government also has to deal with the fact that Argentina’s aggressive stance towards the Falkland Islands is supported by its neighbours throughout the Americas. Other countries have joined Argentina in trying to isolate the Falklands and the British naval forces assigned to its defence. Last September, Uruguay banned HMS Gloucester, the Royal Navy South Atlantic patrol ship, from entering Montevideo. xiv In January, just a few months after signing a defence co-operation treaty with the UK, Brazil refused to allow HMS Gloucester to dock in Rio de Janeiro, the first time Brazil had taken such hostile action. xv Other members of the Mercosur South American trading bloc, including Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, joined Argentina in officially complaining to the UK over military exercises in the Falklands. xvi Mercosur went on to give its full support to Argentina’s blockade against shops travelling to or from the Falklands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, describing British oil exploration around the islands as ‘illegal’. xvii More recently, Mercosur joined the Argentine government in condemning the British defence secretary, saying: “Mercosur full members and associates energetically reject the regrettable statements from UK Minister of Defence regarding the deployment of combat aircraft and naval power in the Malvinas Islands zone,” adding that they supported “the legitimate and indisputable rights of the Argentine Republic over the Malvinas, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands and their surrounding maritime spaces.” xviii Since last year’s Latin American-Caribbean summit, the UK’s isolation can only be said to have become even worse. xix
The Organisation of American States has also continued to take the side of Argentina against the UK. At a plenary session on 7th June, it adopted a declaration which “welcomes the reaffirmation of the will of the Argentine Government to continue exploring all possible avenues towards a peaceful settlement of the dispute and its constructive approach towards the inhabitants of the Malvinas Islands,” which is ironic given Argentina’s complete disregard for the right to self-determination. The motion also “reaffirms the need for the Governments of the Argentine Republic and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to resume, as soon as possible, negotiations on the sovereignty dispute,” without explaining the reason for this ‘need’ when the wishes of the Islanders are clear. Finally, the motion “decides to continue to examine the Question of the Malvinas Islands at its subsequent sessions until a definitive settlement has been reached.” xx This can only imply that the OAS intends to continue until the UK cedes the islands to Argentina, as it is clear that Argentina will settle for nothing less. The document did not refer to the ‘Falklands’ once, only using the name ‘Malvinas’.
Depressingly, this OAS resolution was – once again – approved by the United States, which does not reflect at all well on the “indispensable alliance” between the US and the UK which was reaffirmed during Barack Obama’s recent state visit to Britain just a few weeks beforehand. xxi This point was raised in Parliament by Andrew Rosindell MP in Parliament on 15th June, when he asked the Prime Minister: “Will he remind President Obama when he next sees the United States President that negotiations over the Falkland Islands with Argentina will never be acceptable to Her Majesty’s Government, and that if the special relationship means anything, it means that they defend British sovereignty over our own territories?” It was the Prime Minister’s answer, that “as long as the Falkland Islands want to be sovereign British territory, they should remain sovereign British territory—full stop, end of story,” which drew such strong personal criticism from Fernandez de Kirchner. xxii On the previous day, Dominic Raab MP had asked the foreign secretary: “What discussions were had with President Obama when he was here concerning recent US calls for negotiation on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands? Was he persuaded to support democracy in the South Atlantic as well as in the Middle East?” Disappointingly, William Hague revealed: “There was no discussion about the Falkland Islands with President Obama on his recent visit.” xxiii If the US is to continue to undermine the UK’s position, then this is an issue which the British government must insist on raising.
The UN Special Committee on Decolonisation also adopted a resolution on 21st June calling for a negotiated settlement over sovereignty. The Committee made the strange statement that it recognised the ““special and particular colonial situation” in the Falklands.
The representative from Bolivia took this to mean, disturbingly, that “The right to self-determination could not be applied to that case.” Other representatives from Latin American nations lined up to give their full support to Argentina’s “unquestionable” position. Dick Sawle and Roger Edwards, elected members of the Falkland Islands Legislative Assembly, reiterated the wish of the population for the islands to remain British. This had no impact on the delegates who lined up to condemn British ‘colonialism’ in ‘our Americas’. The only country to offer any support for the UK or the Islanders themselves was – perhaps appropriately – Sierra Leone, whose representative said that “the principle of self-determination was a prime factor in any consideration of the question of the Falkland Islands” and that “Any attempt to resolve the issue without taking into full account the wishes of the islanders would be inconsistent with the United Nations Charter and relevant Assembly resolutions.” xxiv
The Decolonisation Committee, which is made up of 24 members of whom half are from Latin America and the Caribbean, and which includes China, Russia, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela, is clearly a flawed and biased body. It has not ‘de-listed’ any British overseas territories from its list of ‘colonial’ territories which need to be ‘decolonised’, no matter how often the wishes of the populations of these territories have been made clear. The British government is therefore right to continue its approach of informally cooperating with the body in order to put its case across while not joining it or accepting its resolutions. xxv The Committee’s activities merely give Argentina the ability to claim UN backing for its revanchist campaign.
Britain’s ability to defend the islands
With the UK’s diplomatic position increasingly isolated, and the entire Latin American region on the side of Argentina, attention has naturally turned to the UK’s physical ability to uphold British sovereignty and to defend the islands. Liam Fox was commendably blunt when asked about Argentina’s campaign to gain the Falklands, stating: “Those in politics on the other side of the world can huff and puff but it will not change our resolve politically to retain the independence and the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands nor to come to their defence and to maintain deterrence as best we can.” He went on to underline the defences present on the islands: “We have Typhoons already stationed there. We have a very clear message that we have both the naval power if necessary, and certainly any intent to ensure that the Falkland Islands are kept free and their people enjoy the liberation we fought so hard for 30 years ago.” xxvi
Others, however, have questioned the UK’s ability to defend the islands in the case of an attack, particularly after the cuts to defence capabilities contained in last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). Admiral Sandy Woodward, who commanded the British task force in the Falklands War in 1982, argued that: “without American support, the Falklands, the reclaiming of which cost 253 brave British lives, are now perilously close to being indefensible.” He highlighted the combination of the weakened state of the Royal Navy and US support for the Argentine position. As a result, he argued: “The truth is we couldn’t defend anything further than the other side of the Channel.” xxvii
Some may argue that a repeat of 1982, an Argentine military invasion of the Falklands is unlikely. Argentina has repeatedly claimed that it will use exclusively peaceful means. However, cables from the US State Department to the US embassy in Argentina which were revealed by Wikileaks show that the US was concerned in 2009 and 2010 by the possibility of an Argentine attack. US officials wanted to know whether there was a possibility of unilateral military action by Argentina or of a joint offensive with the help of allies such as Venezuela and asked to be kept informed of any discussions on the topic inside the Argentine government and “among military officers”. The basis for this anxiety was the Argentine government’s shift towards more aggressive rhetoric, with Fernandez de Kirchner pledging an eternal fight, combined with the economic situation within Argentina. xxviii The US document also, however, included the assessment that the “budget-strapped Argentine military” was ill-prepared for a military offensive. This is the main reason why a military assault may remain unlikely. Despite the UK’s defence cuts, Argentina’s military ability and willingness to capture and hold the islands is doubtful.
It would be unwise to rely on the argument that Argentina is now a democracy and therefore would only use peaceful means. Argentina is a democracy, but with limitations. Freedom House notes that “Fernández de Kirchner’s government has consistently limited press freedom”, including a media reform bill which “contained provisions limiting freedom of expression” and “a politically-appointed media regulatory body with control over interpreting and implementing the law”. xxix A president decreeing that there should be nationalist indoctrination of all children in support of a territorial claim is not the behaviour of a rational liberal democracy.
The British Government did not foresee the invasion of the Falklands in 1982, which followed an earlier round of British defence cuts. While the current Government reiterates the presence of Typhoon aircraft and one thousand British service personnel on the Falklands, which certainly act as a deterrent and would put up a strong fight, such a small force could not realistically be expected to hold out forever against the entire armed forces of Argentina. The Government has argued that it does not need to plan for the recapture of the islands as it does not intend to lose them. Nor did the Government of 1982. If such an eventuality did occur, such an operation as was launched then would be much more difficult. Now that the HMS Ark Royal aircraft carrier and the Harrier jump jets have been decommissioned, the UK no longer has a carrier strike capability until the new Queen Elizabeth carriers – not due to be completed for a decade – come into operation. The SDSR judged: “In the short term, there are few circumstances we can envisage where the ability to deploy airpower from the sea will be essential.” Yet it also recognised that: “over the longer term, we cannot assume that bases for land-based aircraft will always be available when and where we need them.” That does not only apply over the longer term. In the South Atlantic, there are no friendly countries which would provide land bases or flying rights for British military aircraft. xxx On recent form, not even the US would offer support for the UK in the event of a military crisis. The SDSR has therefore effectively taken a gamble with the security of the Falklands for the next ten years, on the basis that no attack is likely in that period. Disturbingly, this could create the perception of a ten year ‘window of opportunity’ which any potential Argentine aggressor would regard as the optimal time in which to attack if they were minded to do so. The Government cannot predict what will happen, or what kind of government will come to power in Argentina, over the next ten years.
This is yet another area where the SDSR has put the security of the UK at risk and left Britain less able to respond to crises, and another reason why the decisions of the SDSR must be reconsidered. As well as the military situation, the diplomatic situation in the South Atlantic is much worse for the UK, with universal support for Argentina’s position. Britain must continue to press its diplomatic case, as the Deputy Prime Minister did during his recent visit to Brazil. xxxi This must include putting diplomatic pressure on the US administration to recognise the right to self-determination of the Falkland Islanders. Yet ultimately, if it comes to it, Britain must be prepared to defend the islands alone – yet is stripping itself of the means to do so.
Peter John Cannon is the Henry Jackson Society’s Latin America Section Director
iPeter John Cannon, ‘The Falklands Test’, Henry Jackson Society, 18th March 2010, http://www.henryjacksonsociety.org/stories.asp?pageid=49&id=1417
ii’Cristina blasts UK and UN Security Council for lack of progress in Falklands/Malvinas’, MercoPress, 24th September 2010, http://en.mercopress.com/2010/09/24/cristina-blasts-uk-and-un-security-council-for-lack-of-progress-in-falklands-malvinas
iiiRobin Yapp, ‘Argentina’s president will use Falklands as key to re-election’, Daily Telegraph, 13th March 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/falklandislands/8379443/Argentinas-president-will-use-Falklands-as-key-to-re-election.html
ivRobin Yapp, ‘Argentina’s president stokes up claim to the Falklands’, Daily Telegraph, 4th April 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/falklandislands/8426897/Argentinas-president-stokes-up-claim-to-the-Falklands.html
vMalvinas are Argentine for ever and “we will never yield in our claim”, MercoPress, 2nd April 2011, http://en.mercopress.com/2011/04/02/malvinas-are-argentine-for-ever-and-we-will-never-yield-in-our-claim
viRobin Yapp, ‘Argentina’s president will use Falklands as key to re-election’, Daily Telegraph, 13th March 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/falklandislands/8379443/Argentinas-president-will-use-Falklands-as-key-to-re-election.html
viiNile Gardiner, ‘Cristina Kirchner’s pathetic rant against Britain: Argentina’s president needs to back off over the Falklands’, Telegraph blog, 17th June 2011, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/nilegardiner/100092773/cristina-kirchners-pathetic-rant-against-britain-argentinas-president-needs-to-back-off-over-the-falklands/
viii’Corruption in Argentina: The mother of all scandals?’, The Economist, 16th June 2011, http://www.economist.com/node/18836612
ix’Bring back Maggie Thatcher: The Falkland Islands are British’, The Commentator, 17th June 2011, http://www.thecommentator.com/index.php/article/235/bring_back_maggie_thatcher_the_falkland_islands_are_british
xRobin Yapp, ‘Argentina’s president will use Falklands as key to re-election’, Daily Telegraph, 13th March 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/falklandislands/8379443/Argentinas-president-will-use-Falklands-as-key-to-re-election.html
xi’CFK describes PM Cameron’s Falklands’ statement as “mediocre and almost stupid”’, MercoPress, 17th June 2001, http://en.mercopress.com/2011/06/17/cfk-describes-pm-cameron-s-falklands-statement-as-mediocre-and-almost-stupid
xiiIan Drury, ‘Britain branded “bully boy thugs” for still refusing to allow Argentina to reclaim the Falkland Islands’, Daily Mail, 22nd June 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2006888/Britain-bully-boy-thugs-refusing-allow-Argentina-reclaim-Falkland-Islands.html
xiii ‘Argentine election fever: minister accuses UK of keeping hostage “2000 Falklands’ Islanders”’, MercoPress, 29th June 2011, http://en.mercopress.com/2011/06/29/argentine-election-fever-minister-accuses-uk-of-keeping-hostage-2000-falklands-islanders
xiv’Uruguay bans docking permit to Royal Navy vessel heading for the Falklands’, MercoPress, 21st September 2010, http://en.mercopress.com/2010/09/21/uruguay-bans-docking-permit-to-royal-navy-vessel-heading-for-the-falklands
xvRobin Yapp, ‘Royal Navy’s Falklands ship turned away by Brazil’, Daily Telegraph, 10th January 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/falklandislands/8251130/Royal-Navys-Falklands-ship-turned-away-by-Brazil.html
xvi’Mercosur complains about Falklands missile tests’, BBC News, 19th October 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-11571093
xvii’Mercosur condemns UK on Malvinas; promises to monitor shipping in support of oil activities’, MercoPress, 17th June 2010, http://en.mercopress.com/2010/12/17/mercosur-condemns-uk-on-malvinas-promises-to-monitor-shipping-in-support-of-oil-activities
xviii’Falklands/Malvinas: Mercosur supports Argentina; rejects UK Defence minister words’, MercoPress, 30th June 2011, http://en.mercopress.com/2011/06/30/falklands-malvinas-mercosur-supports-argentina-rejects-uk-defence-minister-words
xixRobin Yapp, ‘Britain’s isolation on Falklands grows with ‘anti-colonial’ Brazil snub’, Daily Telegraph, 11th January 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/brazil/8251700/Britains-isolation-on-Falklands-grows-with-anti-colonial-Brazil-snub.html
xxNile Gardiner, ‘Another slap in the face for Britain: the Obama administration sides with Argentina and Venezuela in OAS declaration on the Falklands’, Telegraph blog, 8th June 2011, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/nilegardiner/100091346/another-slap-in-the-face-for-britain-the-obama-administration-sides-with-argentina-and-venezuela-in-oas-declaration-on-the-falklands/
xxiHenry Jackson Society, ‘HJS Editorial: President Obama’s Westminster Hall Speech’, 25th May 2011, http://www.henryjacksonsociety.org/stories.asp?pageid=49&id=2206
xxiiHansard, 15 Jun 2011 : Column 772, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm110615/debtext/110615-0001.htm#11061543002011
xxiiiHansard, 14 Jun 2011 : Column 633, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm110614/debtext/110614-0001.htm#11061453000675
xxivUN Special Committee on Decolonization, 21st June 2011, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs//2011/gacol3225.doc.htm
xxv’Memorandum by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’, Foreign Affairs Select Committee, 28th June 2011, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmfaff/writev/overseas/ot11.htm
xxvi’UK committed to Falklands in spite of all the “huff and puff” from Argentine politicians, MercoPress, 27th June 2011, http://en.mercopress.com/2011/06/27/uk-committed-to-falklands-in-spite-of-all-the-huff-and-puff-from-argentine-politicians
xxviiAdmiral Sandy Woodward, ‘The truth is we couldn’t defend anything further than the other side of the Channel’, 15th June 2011, Daily Mail, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2003263/Falkland-Islands-Britain-defend-English-Channel.html#ixzz1RqMdMyL7″
xxviiiRobin Yapp, ‘WikiLeaks: US concerned over Falklands military action’, Daily Telegraph, 3rd December 2010, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/wikileaks/8177359/WikiLeaks-US-concerned-over-Falklands-military-action.html
xxixFreedom House Report 2011: Argentina, http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=22&year=2011&country=7986
xxxHM Government, ‘Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review’, 19th October 2010, http://www.direct.gov.uk/prod_consum_dg/groups/dg_digitalassets/@dg/@en/documents/digitalasset/dg_191634.pdf
xxxiChristopher Hope, ‘Nick Clegg to face down Brazil over support for Argentina in Falklands row’, Daily Telegraph, 21st June 2001, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/brazil/8587218/Nick-Clegg-to-face-down-Brazil-over-support-for-Argentina-in-Falklands-row.html