The Falklands: Dangerous Terrain
Thirty years after the Falklands War the bitter debate over the South Atlantic islands remains clouded in historical ignorance, argues Klaus Dodds
The 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, which falls in April 2012, has prompted a number of news stories. In February Prince William arrived to serve as a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot for the RAF. Sean Penn, Hollywood actor and public activist, created something of a stir with his caustic comments about ‘archaic colonialism’ and general denunciation of the UK’s Coalition government for insisting that the Falkland Islands remain a British Overseas Territory. His intervention, while on a visit to Argentina that included an audience with the Argentinian president, Christina Kirchner, provoked a heated reaction in the UK. Finally, the Universities and Science Minister David Willetts visited the Falklands and the Antarctic Peninsula for the purpose of better understanding the role that the British Antarctic Survey plays in the region. All three events are connected but, to make sense of them, you have to understand the history and geography of the Falklands and the Antarctic.
Royal visits both create excitement and friction when it comes to the disputed British overseas territories of the Falklands and Gibraltar. While Gibraltar received a royal visit in May 1954, the Duke of Edinburgh visited the Falklands in 1956. Both the Spanish and Argentinian governments at the time issued diplomatic protests precisely because they understood the tremendous symbolic power of such a visit. For a beleaguered community, subject to a counter-claim, such a visitation serves as a powerful reminder that it shares the same head of state with citizens in the UK. The Queen nearly visited in 1968 but such was the furore in Argentina that she was advised to travel to Chile instead and miss out both Argentina and the Falklands. Fast-forward several decades and, in 1982, one witnessed Prince Andrew, then second in line to the throne, fighting to defend the Falklands from an Argentinian occupation. In the aftermath of the conflict princes Charles and Edward and Princess Anne have all graced the Falklands with their presence. The figure of Prince William represents the ideal combination for the Falkland Island community – a member of the Royal Family serving in the British armed forces. While Argentina protested about his deployment, it reminds us that these kinds of visits still matter greatly.
Sean Penn’s ruminations about the Falklands and British colonialism are a throwback to the 1960s when the United Nations Decolonization Committee urged Britain and Argentina to resolve their outstanding differences over the Falklands. For the next four decades Argentinian and British delegations failed to reconcile a fundamental schism – Britain was determined, albeit unevenly in the 1970s, to respect the ‘wishes’ of the Falkland Islanders, while Argentina was eager to argue that its ‘interests’ meant that it should be allowed to reclaim a territory that it believed it lost due to imperial conquest in the 1830s.
Confusingly, successive British governments gave the distinct impression that they were also prepared to negotiate over sovereignty and secure a ‘lease-back’ arrangement whereby Argentina might take over the Falklands in 50 to 100 years hence. In the 1970s, for example, a generation of Falkland Islanders did receive educational instruction and health care from Argentinian institutions as part of a deliberate strategy – and cost-cutting measure – to develop relationships with a near neighbour.
But Argentina and Britain did not just dispute ownership of the Falklands. There was always regional geopolitics at stake. Both countries believe that they rightfully own South Georgia, South Orkneys and South Sandwich as well as a vast area of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Falklands is understood to be the gateway to this South Atlantic and Antarctic portfolio. The resource-rich waters surrounding South Georgia are not inconsequential, especially when coupled with oil and gas exploration to the north of the Falkland Islands. The visit by David Willetts to the Antarctic Peninsula was arranged via a flight from the Falklands and the British Antarctic Survey has its forward operating base in Stanley. Since the 1940s its predecessor, the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), was charged with mapping and occupying the Antarctic Peninsula in order that Argentinian and Chilean counter-claimants might be deterred. Uniquely, the Antarctic Peninsula is claimed by three states and those claims overlap hugely.
While the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 has pacified what used to be called ‘The Antarctic Problem’, all three countries use science and scientists to maintain their foothold in the Antarctic. The British Antarctic Survey, while it conducts world-class polar science, is a vital accomplice to this regional agenda. If the Antarctic Treaty, with its restrictions on military activity and territorial claiming, were ever to collapse then Britain’s relationship with the Falklands becomes even more important in terms of maintaining a credible presence in the region. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Britain very nearly ‘pulled out’ of the Antarctic on the grounds of cost. In the midst of yet another austerity crisis this is a point worth remembering.
Thankfully the 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict does not coincide with a World Cup year. Ever since 1966, England-Argentina football games have been routinely punctuated by drama on and off the playing field. In England’s World Cup-winning year the Argentinian captain, Antonio Rattin, was sent off in an infamous quarter-final game at Wembley. In 2002, for example, on the 20th anniversary of the conflict a bad-tempered game was settled by a David Beckham penalty kick. Football and the Falklands have never been that far apart from one another and perhaps we should be relieved that the England team travel to Eastern Europe this year rather than to Brazil, where the next World Cup is to be held, in 2014.
Unbeknown to Sean Penn and perhaps other commentators, the contemporary history of Argentinian-British-Falkland relations is vastly more complicated than at first glance. The islands’ 3,000-strong community was transformed by the 1982 conflict. It is not a colony in the way imagined by the likes of Penn, but a society that elects its own political representatives and governs its own affairs with the exception of defence and foreign affairs. The continued British military presence in the South Atlantic is a legacy of the conflict and Argentina’s determination to press its claim to British overseas territory. Before 1982 there was a general perception in both Britain and Argentina that the Falkland Islanders were mere colonial subjects. Intriguingly, in April 1982 soldiers of the Argentinian task force seemed genuinely perplexed that they were not greeted as liberators by Spanish-speaking fellow citizens!
The Falkland Islanders are not downtrodden natives; in the last 30 years the islands have developed into a vibrant democracy, eager to shape its own future free of any form of colonial interference, whether from Britain or Argentina. There is also strong opinion poll data that suggests that a new generation of Argentina’s own citizens no longer unthinkingly demand that the Falkland Islands should be returned to their country. Sean Penn is not the only observer to misconstrue the complexities of the Falkland Islands.
Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and the author of Pink Ice: Britain and the South Atlantic Empire (I.B. Tauris, 2002).
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology