The Falklands War’s 30-Year Dénouement

GENEVA – In April 1982, the United Kingdom faced the imminent use of force by the Argentine junta in the Falkland Islands (Malvinas). When Sir Anthony Parsons, the UK representative to the United Nations, appeared before the Security Council to call for action, he did not do so “to discuss the rights or wrongs of the very longstanding issue between Great Britain and Argentina over the islands in the South Atlantic.” The British were requesting Security Council action for one reason: “to deter any threat of armed force.”

Parsons submitted a draft, which became Security Council Resolution 502, demanding the cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of the Argentine forces, and calling on both governments “to seek a diplomatic solution to their differences.” The rest of the story is well known.

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On June 14, 1982, the Argentine forces surrendered to the British Commander. The hostilities had ended, but the dispute over the Falklands’ sovereignty remained. Soon after the conflict, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution requesting that Argentina and the UK resume negotiations in order to find a peaceful solution to the sovereignty issue as quickly as possible. The British government, however, refused to talk.

Now, on the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, the British government remains steadfast that there will be no sovereignty negotiations with Argentina unless the islanders so request, because their right to self-determination must be respected.

But is the British government’s stance justifiable? Whether or not the principle of self-determination applies to the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands is a major bone of contention between the UK and Argentina. Indeed, not just any human community is considered to possess that right. In fact, who has it and how to apply fuels controversy around the world.

Britain’s claims find little support in the international community. No UN resolution related to the Falklands/Malvinas has ever referred to self-determination – in stark contrast with resolutions concerning decolonization elsewhere. Indeed, Britain’s refusal to make any attempt to settle the sovereignty dispute until 3,000 British subjects ask the government to do so flies in the face not only of fundamental rules of international law, but also of elementary logic.

The British government’s stance amounts to a breach of its obligation under international law to settle international disputes through available peaceful means. This obligation implies positive action, not mere abstention from the use of force. By rejecting Argentine proposals to negotiate, refusing to accept the good offices of the UN Secretary-General, and failing to propose any alternative means of resolving the dispute, the UK is adopting a stance that is not merely unfriendly but illegal.

Nor can the UK’s refusal to negotiate be justified on the grounds that Argentina has inscribed its sovereignty claim into its 1994 constitution. After all, London refused to negotiate with Argentina before 1994. More fundamentally, it is to be expected that countries would establish as a matter of domestic law a claim to any disputed territory. The outcome of negotiations would then require either country – or both – to modify its domestic law, in order for the compromise to enter into force. Simply put, a domestic claim to the disputed territory cannot constitute an obstacle to negotiations.

Many countries consider the Falklands/Malvinas to be Argentine territory, including all of those in the surrounding region. None of the other permanent members of the Security Council recognizes the UK’s sovereignty claim. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of countries have called on the UK and Argentina to enter into negotiations.

Maintaining the status quo is thus more than an obstacle to normal relations between Argentina and the UK, two countries that have traditionally maintained strong links; it adversely affects British relations with the entire region. Moreover, it negatively affects the islands’ development.

The Falkland Islands’ leaders must understand that ignoring the sovereignty dispute is not an option, and that their purported right to self-determination is neither endorsed by the UN, nor recognized by a majority of countries – even those nearby. A compromise is possible, if the concerned parties are willing to take the necessary steps to relieve future generations of the potential hazards of this longstanding dispute.

Argentina and the UK have an opportunity to give a positive example, showing the rest of the world that even disputes that have led to violence in the past can be solved through imaginative diplomatic formulas. Only by bringing this conflict to an end can those who lost their lives on the Falkland Islands 30 years ago truly be honored.