Argentina’s "Falklands debt" goes to the heart of our unethical foreign policy

The government should remember our shameful role in arming the junta.

The anniversary of war should be a time for learning the lessons of history - particularly when the injustice of a war continues to this day. Some documents exposed by Jubilee Debt Campaign this week expose a cynical approach to British foreign policy which should shock both British and Argentine citizens.

Argentina’s outstanding debt to the UK is £45 million. This week we have uncovered how much of this debt was run-up. In the years leading up to the Falklands War the British government was flogging one of the most unpleasant dictatorships in the world British weapons. 

A military coup in 1976 brought a wave of terror to Argentina. The ‘dirty war’ which the coup ushered in was a period of state terrorism in which as many as 30,000 people were killed or ‘disappeared’. Political parties and trade unions were banned, whilst religious groups had to apply for approval from the state.

The British government at the time was well aware of the nature of the regime in Argentina. In a document from Foreign Secretary David Owen to the Ministry of Defence in 1979, Owen describes the junta as a “regime whose human rights record is worse than Chile, and which could come close to a confrontation with us over the Falklands.” Pinochet’s Chile faced sanctions at the time, as a result of a policy made by the then government at the previous election. But Argentina faced no such restrictions. 

Owen understood the problems with selling weapons to Argentina, but concluded that “it is not possible to achieve complete consistency in our approach to this problem and that to attempt to do so would impose unreasonable constraints upon us.” As a result Argentina was sold two Type 42 Destroyers, two Lynx helicopters and twenty-two Sea Dart missiles.

These weapons sales - and likely a variety of other military equipment sold - were backed by an effective loan from a British government department called the Export Credits Guarantee Department. Indeed, such a good client was the Argentine junta, that in October 1979 the British raised the amount of loans it could back to Argentina from £100 million to £500 million to “provide room ... for the potential arms contracts.”

Both the destroyers and Lynx helicopters were used in the invasion of the Falklands - one of the Lynx’s was the first Argentine aircraft to land on the Falklands after the invasion. Indeed when the Falklands War was underway, Argentina should still have been paying the British Government for weapons being used against British soldiers.

These issues were aired - including in parliament at the time. What’s worrying is that the replies received are exactly the same replies received by arms campaigners today: when Lord Averbury asked whether it was “unwise to sell military weapons of any kind while the Falklands’ problem remains unresolved?” he was told “the government takes into account the use to which the equipment might be put”.

After defeat in the Falklands Argentina’s military junta was kicked out of power in the 1983 elections. Through the 1980s the economy suffered from the huge foreign debt the government inherited, which led to stagnation and increases in unemployment and poverty. Many argued it was a classic case of ‘odious debt’ and the new government should simply refuse to pay the sorts of debts owed to the UK. Indeed a famous court case in 2000 found that loans to Argentina under the dictatorship were part of "a damaging economic policy that forced [Argentina] on its knees through various methods ... and which tended to benefit and support private companies - national and foreign - to the detriment of society".

In order to keep paying this odious debt, Argentina's governments accumulated ever more debt. New loans repay old debts. By the 1990s, courtesy of advice and bail-out packages from the International Monetary Fund the economy entered a crisis and - after five governments in two weeks over Christmas 2001 - defaulted. The improvement both in the economy and Argentina’s democratic model improved significantly - no thanks to the so-called international community.

What should worry us today is that David Owen was not alone at the time - or indeed since - in placing the interests of the arms industry ahead of being a good global citizen. Owen, like many others after him, expressed ‘reservations’ about some of the arms sales, but in the end narrowly perceived economic and strategic interests won out.

The UK has spent years arming dictators and the debts ‘owed’ to this country can be linked back with some of the worst regimes of the last 40 years - General Suharto of Indonesia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, not to mention the royal family of Saudi Arabia. At the centre of these deals was the Export Credits Guarantee Department, now rebranded as UK Export Finance and under the stewardship of Vince Cable’s Department of Business.

In opposition, Cable regularly railed against the sorts of deals done with the Argentine junta, and his party promised in power to audit such debts and cancel those deemed reckless. It’s surely difficult to imagine a more reckless loan that one which supported arms sales to Argentina in the late 1970s. The government should use the Falklands anniversary not to wave flags, but to remember our own shameful role in arming an atrocious regimes around the world and make some efforts at recompense - for the lives of British and Argentine soldiers lost. 

Nick Dearden is the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign

Relatives of victims wait to hear the sentences of 30 leaders of the last dictatorship. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder