Why Britain is in the wrong over the Falklands

The UK has no legal right to the islands and only defends them to exploit oil and gas reserves.

A few years ago, the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Mark Stanhope, informed Chatham House that Britain's role in the world is "wielding a big stick" to "compel others to act in a desired manner." In February, Argentina's Foreign Minister Hector Timerman approached the United Nations to complain about the UK's deployment of a nuclear-armed submarine (of the Vanguard class) in the South Atlantic.

The move was confirmed by the Daily Mail and by the BBC. The latter acknowledged that "The Latin America and the Caribbean region is designated a nuclear-free zone under a treaty signed in the 1960s." The deployment of nuclear weapons in response to Argentina's peaceful efforts to resolve the Falklands/Malvinas issue is not only a grave violation of Chapter 1 Article 2(4) of the UN Charter (which prohibits the threat of force), but a particularly egregious example of "wielding the big stick."

Imagine the boot on the other foot. Imagine if Argentina had occupied the Shetland Islands in the 1800s, expelling the inhabitants. Despite Britain's efforts to resolve the issue peacefully in accordance with various UN Resolutions calling for decolonisation, Argentina continues the occupation and expands fishing and oil drilling into UK territorial waters. Under a military junta, Britain invades the Shetlands, and in doing so is threatened with a nuclear attack.

This is what happened in 1982, with the balance of power reversed. Retired Admiral Richard Heaslip was quoted as saying that "The Argentines had a good navy in 1982. But after we got a nuclear submarine down there they went back to port and never dared venture out." As the vessels were retreating, British missiles sank the Belgrano, thereby escalating the war. Foreign Office records also reveal that the Thatcher government vetoed a Security Council Resolution calling for a ceasefire.

The Law

The Falklands/Malvinas were terra nullius when the French colonised the islands in the 18th century. They were then sold to Spain, a transfer of sovereignty which Britain recognised. However, upon decolonisation and under the principle of uti possidetis, sovereignty should have been transferred to Argentina, which declared independence in 1816. In 1833, Britain expelled the islands' inhabitants. Argentina's Foreign Minister Don Manuel Moreno was told by Prime Minister Palmerston that Argentina "could not reasonably have anticipated that the British Government would permit any other state to exercise a right as derived from Spain which Great Britain had denied to Spain itself."

Writing in the Yale Law Journal, W Michael Reisman affirmed that "Upon acquiring independence, a former colony", i.e. Argentina, "ordinarily inherits all the territory of that colony. This principle, enshrined in Latin America and, a century later, in Africa, would certainly appear to apply to the Falklands [Malvinas]." For Britons, the legal status of the islands is an open-and-shut case: Britain has no legal right to the islands. This has been reiterated at the General Assembly.

General Assembly Resolution 2065 (XX), adopted on 16 December 1965, "Consider[ed] ... the cherished aim of bringing to an end everywhere colonialism in all its forms, one of which covers the Falkland Islands (Malvinas)." The Resolution left it to Argentina and Britain to negotiate the issue using bilateral diplomacy. Britain violated this aspect of the Resolution. As a result, in December 1973, General Assembly Resolution 3160 (XXVIII) "Express[ed] its gratitude for the continuous efforts made by the Government of Argentina ... to facilitate the process of decolonization and to promote the well-being of the population of the island." The Resolution also "Urge[d] the Governments of Argentina [and the UK] ...to put an end to the colonial situation."

Oil, Gas, and Fish

Successive British governments have not only consistently violated the Resolution, but the Chatham House journal International Affairs - like the General Assembly - acknowledged Argentina's peaceful efforts to resolve the issue (except, of course, the 1982 War, for which the previous government has apologised). Guillermo A Makin's paper in the journal recognised that "the use of force has not been a permanent feature of the approach of the various very different Argentine political regimes to the [Malvinas] dispute."

Likewise, recent House of Commons papers note that "The catalyst for the renewed Argentinean sovereignty campaign is believed to have arisen as a result of the Falklands decision in 2005 to grant fishing concessions around the Islands over a 25-year period, rather than by annual renewal," recalling the events of 1986, when the Falkland Islanders unilaterally declared 150 nautical miles of fishing rights. [PDF]

The main issue, of course, is energy. North Sea-size fields were discovered in the 1970s following a UNESCO-sponsored expedition. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal explained that "The Falklands government only takes a 26 per cent share of oil earnings in addition to a 9 per cent royalty on each barrel of oil sold, making it one of the most favourable areas in the world for exploration." A few years ago, the "British firm Rockhopper Exploration discovered a massive natural gas deposit - one that could be as big as 7.9 trillion cubic feet," Money Week reported.

"By 2029 there is expected to be a considerable increase in demand for energy. In particular gas will be of increasing importance as states struggle to maintain energy supplies," the Ministry of Defence explained [PDF]. "Many boundary disputes, such as those in the Arctic, Gulf of Guinea and the South Atlantic will become inextricably linked to the securing of energy supplies." Does anyone seriously think that were it not for the oil and gas, 1,400 soldiers (around one per islander) would be deployed at a cost of £40 million a year to defend a bunch of rocks that few Britons could find on a map?

TJ Coles is a PhD candidate at Plymouth University

Show Hide image

If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood