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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