"Best pleased to inform Her Majesty that the Union Jack once again flies over Stanley. God save the queen."
Those were the words of Major General Jeremy Moore on 14 June 1982 when the Argentinian garisson in Port Stanley surrendered to the British force sent from Europe to recapture the faraway islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. This was the last major battle on the Falklands, concluding a conflict for land lying more than 7,900 miles from London (12,734km) for which more than 900 soldiers died.
But today tensions seem to have resumed. With the drilling of oil by the British government, Argentina has stepped up its attacks against Britain in what it calls an "illegal occupation" of the islands. On the other hand, the British defend their rights of prospecting for fossil fuel in what their consider sovereign territory and exclusive economic area. But why is this resurfacing today, after such a landmark conflict, and what is it about ?
A centuries old conflict
Larger than Cyprus or Corsica, almost the size of Northern Ireland (at 4,700 sq mi), these islands have been the cause of major tensions between the United Kingdom and Argentina for centuries. It is not very clear who discovered the islands : all major seafaring nations of the 16th century may have sent explorers to this general area. But it is a Frenchman who established the first settlement in 1764, on the East Falkland. A year later, on West Falkland, Great Britain founded its own colony.
In 1767, the French colony was given to Spain, and this is where the roots of the Argentinian claims to the Falklands lay. The Spanish and the British started a series of skirmishes and limited military manoeuvres. Although claims were never dropped, Spanish and British presence on the island from the 1770s were not always permanent, and by 1832, the newly independent Argentinian launched a mission to reassert its sovereignty. In a first direct conflict, just a few months later, Great Britain sent a squadron to firmly proclaim British sovereignty, expelling the Argentinian garrisson.
From 1833, the Falklands became a Crown colony and British sovereignty was continuous until 1982. The war was caused in part because of a decaying dictatorial regime, hoping to regain its population's support by exciting nationalistic sentiments. But it was also because the Argentinians strongly believe that the Falklands – or Malvinas as they call them – belong to them, and that Britain is still a colonial occupier.
A resurgence of tensions
And thirty years later, under a now a democratic government, the claim has not been relinquished. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner because president of Argentina in late 2007, and one of her first major actions, in April 2008, on the very 26th anniversary of the Falklands War, was to call the claims on the islands "unalienable". In 2010, in the middle of the Kirchner's campaign for a second term, she denounced the drilling of oil around the Falklands. At a summit gathering the presidents of Latin America and the Carribean, she received unanimous support.
It is not clear whether these tactics were part of her re-election campaign, to stir up support for her party through nationalism, just like the military junta had done in the early 1980s. But still, in September, a month before the general election and before the United Nations General Assembly, she again denounced British occupation of the Falklands. In October, Kirchner became the first woman in Latin America to be re-elected at the top office.
Mounting pressure on the British government
Even after re-election, Kirchner continued her attacks. She obtained from all South American nations not to accept ships flying the Falklands flag to dock in their ports. Besides economic pressure, the recent Argentinian efforts put pressure on the British-American "special relationship". On a visit in Washington, Kirchner pushed the White House to declare that there was a "bilateral issue". From a British perspective, it is like questioning American sovereignty over Hawaii. But from an Argentinian perspective it is a major diplomatic victory.
Aside from diplomatic heat, the British government has also received major criticism from its armed forces, just like the protests that Margaret Thatcher had had to face when she announced major cuts in the Royal Navy as part of the 1981 Defence White Paper. Very recently, a former head of the British Army, Sir Mike Jackson, declared that it would be "just impossible" to win back the islands if the Argentinians were to invade them again, because of the cuts imposed by David Cameron in 2010.
Britain is facing major issues over these islands : the first is the simple asserting of its authority over this territory which belongs, according to international law, to her. There is a precedent for this : Gibraltar. Seized by the British in 1704, this territory was always claimed by Spain, and especially under Franco, who went as far as blockading the territory. The conflict was slightly defused throughout the years, ending for the most part with referendums in 1967 and 2002 where the population could choose between Spanish, British or shared sovereignty. The results were 99% and 98% respectively in favour of British sovereignty alone.
In The Downing Street Years, Thatcher wrote :
"The significance of the Falklands War was enormous, both for Britain's self-confidence and for our standing in the world...We had come to be seen by both friends and enemies as a nation which lacked the will and the capability to defend its interests in peace, let alone in war. Victory in the Falklands changed that. Everywhere I went after the war, Britain's name meant something more than it had. The war also had real importance in relations between East and West: years later I was told by a Russian general that the Soviets had been firmly convinced that we would not fight for the Falklands, and that if we did fight we would lose. We proved them wrong on both counts, and they did not forget the fact."
The danger of a war seems all the more real, in an era where British diplomacy and interests seem to be changing, and are realigning. With British defence cuts and with a severe financial and economic crisis affecting Argentina among others, we find ourselves in the same exact situation as we were in late March 1982. As Margaret Thatcher said, it appears today that British willpower and military power have become invisible, but as with any major crisis such as that of 1929, nationalism seems to be a convenient way to try and have people forget about economic woes. And what better occasion that the century-old conflict of the Falklands ?
How will the crisis end ?
What can we do ? What will happen ? No one really knows, aside from the fact that everyone should try to end attacks, criticism and pressure. Can the Argentinians really start a war ? No one thought so in 1982, but they did. And would America come to the rescue ? Probably not, as the attacked territory would not fall under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty providing for mutual solidarity if any member of NATO is under attack. Surprisingly, help could maybe come from Europe, as it did in 1982. In his memoirs, Sir John Nott, Defence Secretary at the time, wrote that "In so many ways Mitterrand and the French were our greatest allies". It was France who indeed provided Britain with code to disarm Exocet missiles, saving so many lives...
Catherine Ashton's spokesperson Michael Mann recently declared that "the territories that include the Falklands are covered by the treaty". So would the European Union, under its solidarity clause in Article 222 of the Treaty of Lisbon come to Britain's help ? It is highly unlikely, at least directly. But with Franco-British defence agreements and alliances pointing to shared aircraft carriers, equipments and patrols, heavy support would probably come from Paris, not Washington. This time however, Britain and Argentina have their respective continents on their sides. Again, no one knows what will happen, or when it will happen.
Tensions are nevertheless said to increase in the coming weeks with the dispatching of Prince William of Wales, as part of his Royal Air Force duties, and with the arrival of HSM Dauntless - a regular procedure of rotating naval presence on the islands. The Falklands remain a very sensitive issue fourty years after the way. It seems that the loss of human life, and the danger of an escalation of the conflict did nothing to appease tensions : unlike in Europe where conflicts usually brought some appeasement, the Falklands War made these islands a major symbol of national sovereignty over which neither side will compromise. Will the Empire strike back this time ?
Picture credits : "The Empire Strike Back", Newsweek magazine, 19 April 1982 and Falklands War memorial - Old Portsmouth by Schnauzerwhisperer on Flickr.com