Until recently, I did not think that I would ever see the Falklands. But this I have just done, although briefly. Passing Government House I was intrigued to see the Royal Standard flying. The Princess Royal was passing through on her way to the British Antarctic Survey. The Princess had only recently rushed to Australia to represent The Queen at the service for the victims of the bushfires and floods.
As one journalist visiting the islands and locals said, Prince Anne is remarkably committed and hard working. And incidentally, HRH Prince William is to serve a three month tour of duty on the Islands, following completion of training with the Royal Air Force Search and Rescue Force.
Back in 1982, as a teacher in international law, I had been invited by the broadcast and print media to comment on the legality of the shock Argentinean invasion on 2 April of the Falklands and claim to own the islands. It was clear that the junta under General Galtieri was seeking an antidote to its unpopularity because of the economic decline under the dictatorship.
Britain was at the time led by a Prime Minister of Churchillian strength, Margaret Thatcher. It is difficult to see her predecessors Ted Heath or Harold Wilson doing anything more than wringing their hands in despair. But Margaret Thatcher replied with an expeditionary force. This was not as I read in recently distributed tourist material, a skirmish. There were fierce naval and air battles, the British landed at San Carlos Water on 21 May, and a forceful land campaign followed until the Argentine forces surrendered on 14 June, Mrs Thatcher announcing to the waiting press that the Union Flag once again flew over Stanley. ( A video follows on the site version of this column)
In particular I remember a debate at that time on the ABC 730 report with an Australian lawyer better known for his expertise in tax law, and on a commercial TV programme with an aristocratic Cuban whom I suspected had fled from the Castro dictatorship. But as he told me, Latin Americans had to stick together against the old imperialists.
With the exception of the Chileans under General Pinochet all the Latin Americans supported Argentina, as did the Britain’s EEC partner Spain. I remember the Panamanian delegate to the UN Security Council saying the United Kingdom had no right to be there since it was a republican organisation.
Interestingly the Commonwealth and the United States provided the strongest support to the British during the war.
The Chileans were understandably put out when years later a subsequent British Government arrested General Pinochet on a warrant by an activist Spanish magistrate for human right violations while head of state, something not within the generally accepted jurisdiction of a Spanish court.
As to the legal issues raised in 1982, I see no reason now to change the very firm opinion I had then, that is, that the title of the United Kingdom to the Falklands is unimpeachable.
And under international law as it had developed in the twentieth century, Argentina’s invasion was illegal. Britain was entitled to defend herself and to expel the Argentineans.
The Falklands are isolated with a harsh climate. Their GDP per head is about 2.5 times more than Argentina’s, and they have long lived under the rule of law. The 3000 or so Islanders, as they now prefer to call themselves, do not want to be Argentineans, and since 1983 they have been citizens of the UK.
And as I told the Falklands Islands postmistress, having seen the beautiful but decaying city of Buenos Aires twice in the last thirteen years, the footpaths in Stanley are in a much better condition. Indeed I am surprised that the city council of Buenos Aires is not inundated with accident claims. I suspect they have concentrated on allowing too many beautiful buildings to be pulled down to be replaced with the sort of mediocre works we too often see these days.
The clubs in Buenos Aires are magnificent, but I remember a lecture being moved from a salon to a corridor at the Centro Navale, the opulent Naval Club, when they realised it would be in English, the language of those who sank the Belgrano. They still needed the custom.
...the legal title…
Argentina claims the islands, as they say the Malvinas, through an early French settlement later transferred to the Spanish, from whom the Argentineans gained their independence. The British, unaware of the French settlement and arriving soon after, also claimed the islands and established a settlement in another part. The British subsequently withdrew, reserving their claims to sovereignty. The Spanish then did the same.
In the nineteenth century, before the Panama Canal was built, ships used this part of the South Atlantic more than today, and there was extensive fishing and whaling in the area. An attempt to establish an Argentinean presence in 1828 ended with such a dispute with the United States over fishing rights that the Americans destroyed the settlement. The islands were in a state of anarchy, with Argentina unsuccessfully attempting to restore its authority when the British returned in 1833.
Except for the brief late twentieth century Argentinean invasion the British have been in effective occupation since then – the best title a country can have, provided it was not by conquests made illegal in the twentieth century.
And the British have certainly defended their title. In 1914, in the Battle of the Falkland Islands, the British won a significant naval victory over a German force headed by Vice Admiral Graf Spree which planned to destroy the British coal loading facilities and communications base there. In the Second World War, the Falklands served as Royal Navy station and base for ships involved in the Battle of the River Plate.
Argentina has recently renewed her claims, which the British show no inclination to yield to. With new found wealth in the oceans, and the determination of the Islanders, it is unlikely title will change.