Vulcan bomber

Preface to a conflict

The Falklands Conflict (2 April to 14 June 1982), was a unique period in the history of Britain and Argentina. Although war was never formally declared, the brief conflict saw nearly 1,000 lives lost and many more wounded. Described in such diverse terms as an 'outdated neo-colonial adventure', a 'fight for freedom and democracy' and a 'moment of national greatness', in some ways the conflict belonged more to the 19th than the 20th century.

The Falkland Islands, which number some 700, lie around 300 miles off the coast of Argentina, and approximately 8,000 miles from Britain. In 1982 the population was justover 1,800. A number of smaller islands to the east and southeast, while legally separate from the Falklands, are administered from the capital of the Falkland Islands at Stanley. These comprise South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, none of which possess any permanent inhabitants.

Initially, the crisis was not taken seriously by those not directly involved. But for many in Britain the issue was clear-cut. Argentina had taken, by force, British territory inhabited by British people and the issue had to be addressed. Patriotism, a quality considered dormant in many Britons since WWII, returned to the fore and principles such as duty, courage and resolution became enshrined in daily life, albeit for only a few months. Those outside of the UK found it difficult to comprehend that it was the issue of national honour and pride and the principle that international law must be upheld which was the driving force leading to Britain's largest military deployment for 30 years being sent 8,000 miles south to get the islands back. Clearly there were also historical factors which influenced the events of 1982.

The sovereignty issue had been a source of tension between Britain and Argentina for over 200 years, although the intensity of the dispute varied considerably. In 1982 perhaps the most significant feature of the dispute was that most British people were only vaguely aware of it - if indeed they were aware of it at all - whereas to Argentines it was a matter of national pride, liable to generate great emotion. Officially, neither the British nor the Argentines entertained the slightest doubt about the validity of their respective claims. On the other hand the people of the Falkland Islands are sincere people who have grown up in their own community where a slow pace of life is the norm. Most are passionately pro-British, have no desire to join the rat race or to be governed by Argentina and are satisfied with a simple life and few possessions. They have preserved a most English way of life and a walk through Stanley recalled an English village of 30 or more years ago. The people of Argentina hold the claim to sovereignty over the Falklands with passionate and unswerving intensity. A brief summary and timetable of the history may explain the passion on both sides, to view this, click here.

There is some uncertainty as to who first sighted the islands. The Argentines say that it was Esteban Gomez, who sailed with Magellan in 1520. British sources claim that John Davis made the first sighting in 1592. The question is largely academic in a sovereignty discussion because discovery without effective settlement is not sufficient for a sovereignty claim.

The first recorded landing on the islands was believed to have been made by Captain John Strong in 1690. It was Captain Strong who named the passage between the two main islands Falkland Sound, in honour of Viscount Falkland, the Treasurer of the Navy. At the time the islands were frequently visited by French sailors from the city of St Malo in Brittany, and were often referred to as the 'Malouines' in recognition of this. The Spanish name for the islands, the 'Malvinas', is believed to derive from the French name.

The claim made by the Argentines in 1982 was a claim they had been making since 1833, based on their claimed inheritance of the sovereignty for the whole of the former Spanish La Plata Royalty. The British seizure of the Malvinas and the eviction of Commander Pinedo in 1833 was, say the Argentines, a straightforward occupation by force of a group of islands which, in the ordinary course of events, would have passed smoothly to Argentine sovereignty, and the British community which inhabited the islands from 1833 to 1982 was implanted by force on Argentine soil. The British claim in 1833 was based on a mere five years of settlement at one place in West Falkland nearly 70 years earlier, the leaving of a leaden plaque and then the eviction of the Argentine governor by Captain Onslow. This compares with a continuous Spanish presence of 40 years between 1767 and 1811 and an intermittent and unstable Argentine one of seven years from 1826 to 1833.

There had been many attempts to resolve the dispute after World War Two. In 1947, Britain offered to submit to the International Court of Justice at The Hague the dispute over the Falklands Dependencies - South Georgia, the South Sandwiches and the area now known as the British Antarctic Territory. Argentina did not accept this offer. Britain submitted the dispute over the dependencies unilaterally to the Court in 1955, applying for redress over Argentine encroachments. The case was accepted and some preliminary work carried out by Court officials. Argentina announced she would not accept any decision, which might emerge, and the Court removed the case from its lists in March 1956.

Britain contended in 1982 that nearly a century and a half had passed since Argentines had lived in the islands and that the population was composed almost entirely of British stock, many of them in their fifth or more generation of residence. Furthermore, courtesy of the United Nations, islanders now had a new means of deciding sovereignty firmly on their side - the principle of self-determination.

This is a summary of the 1960 UN declaration:

"All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Immediate steps shall be taken, in trust and non-self-governing territories or all other territories which have not yet attained independence, to transfer all powers to the peoples of those territories, without any conditions or reservations, in accordance with their freely expressed will and desire, without any distinction as to race, creed or colour, in order to enable them to enjoy complete independence and freedom."

The main purpose of the 1960 Declaration was to allow the many millions of coloured people in colonies to emerge as independent nations. But the Falklands were not inhabited by a group of such people who wanted to get out from under white rule; the Falkland Islanders were white and their elected representatives repeatedly declared that they wished to remain a colony of Britain. The United Nations could do no more than pass this ambiguous resolution on 16 December 1965:

"The General Assembly invites the Governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to proceed without delay with the negotiations recommended by the Special Committee on the Situation with regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples with a view to finding a peaceful solution to the problem, bearing in mind the provisions and objectives of the Charter of the United Nations and of General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) and the interests of the population of the Falkland Islands (Malvinas)."

The voting for this was 94 to 0, with Britain and the United States being among the 14 abstentions. Argentina's problem was - and remains - that the world now concerns itself less with the paper principle of sovereignty - in the case of the Falklands, a claim more than 150 years old - than with the principle of self-determination. The United Nations has never attempted to define sovereignty nor has it made any declarations on sovereignty, but it has pursued the principle of self-determination with much enthusiasm. What the United Nations has never been able to come to terms with is the problem of small colonies not strong enough to govern themselves, who wish to retain the protection of their colonial power.

The Falkland Island dependencies have, on occasions, been added to Argentine claims. Today the group, which includes South Georgia (San Pedro to the Argentines) and the South Sandwich Islands remain separate territories directly dependent on the United Kingdom. Finally, Britain's Antarctic territories are not connected with - at least directly - the dispute over the Falkland Islands. There are overlapping Argentine, British and Chilean claims in the Antarctic, but sovereignty over Antarctica was frozen for a period of 30 years under the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 which came into effect in 1961. The moratorium was renewed for a further 30 years in 1991.

To many there is only one conclusion to be drawn from the sovereignty dispute - it is a particularly complex affair. To some it is perhaps almost irreconcilable. To others, the position is academic anyway while the desire of the Falkland Islands' population is to remain under a de facto British administration. However complicated the issue, the sovereignty dispute did not legally justify the Argentine invasion in 1982.

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