Comment: Britain and Argentina’s claims to the Falklands are equally meaningless

This is not about historical ownership. This is about pride and hypocrisy.

By Nick Marwick

The first line of LP Hartley's novel The Go-Between has entered common usage as easily as any proverb: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Unfortunately, with regards to the Falklands/Malvinas islands, things haven't been done differently for thirty years and the dispute has exposed the backward, trenchant and dogmatic attitudes of two countries refusing to embrace change.

Another writer, the politically-suspect anglophile and genius Jorge Luis Borges compared the 1982 war over the islands to "two bald men fighting over a comb". This was a rare political insight from a man who, as well as famously claiming to be too blind to read the papers, was also apparently too deaf to hear the screams of his country throughout the years of a dictatorship incomprehensible in its depravity.

Borges made his comment at a time when the South Atlantic archipelago seemed to offer little more than a populist exercise in violent unification of the electorate for a dictatorship on its last legs and a deeply unpopular Conservative government under questionable leadership. As we know, it destroyed the former, while cementing the position of the latter at the cost of 904 lives on both sides. The situation has changed enough to ensure that the democratically elected government of Argentina would never consider another invasion. However, despite being separated by 8000 miles of ocean, the present attitudes of both countries seem deeply entrenched, side-by-side, in that foreign country Hartley described.

Reducing the 1982 conflict to a tool of mere political expedience would seem cynical and insensitive to the suffering it caused, but at the time the islands were a negligible resource – little thought was given to oil exploration in the South Atlantic during the years of Galtieri and Thatcher. For this reason, Borges' comments seemed profound, but were flawed: a war is never fought over nothing and in 1982 both teams were playing for pride at an unspeakably high cost. Pride is ever the enemy of pragmatism.

The history of the Falklands is complex and open to interpretation. The first settlers to the archipelago were the French in 1764, where they set up a garrison in what is now East Falkland. The British also exercised de facto control of part of the islands from 1690, settling on another uninhabited section of the territory, independent of the French, with a garrison of their own. However, as a result of a Papal bull issued in 1493, the islands were on the Spanish side of the line dividing South America between Spain and Portugal. In 1713, a mere 320 years after Spain was 'granted' sovereignty by the Pope, it put diplomatic pressure on France and the UK to cede control of the islands and, in 1766, France agreed. There was no similar agreement between Spain and the UK and, in 1770, Spain expelled the British and took control of the rest of the islands, coming close to all-out war in the process. In 1771, the British returned without contest from Spain, and, with no sovereignty agreement reached, continued much as they did before being driven out, governing their own section of the territory independently of the Spanish. After several more years of back-and-forth between Britain and Spain, both countries departed from the islands and, by 1811, all that was left were two plaques, each asserting separate claims of sovereignty. Argentina became fully independent from Spain in 1816, and landed on the islands in 1929, believing them to be included in the territory relinquished by their former colonial masters. The British had other ideas and in 1933 they landed once again and took the islands without resistance due to the weakness of the Argentine garrison. The British then settled farmers and fisherman in the territory and continued to use it as a strategic outpost in the South Atlantic, strengthening the military presence on the island after the 1982 war.

As I said: complicated and open to interpretation.

The history of the islands is essentially meaningless. The selective moralising on both sides has forced each government to pretend that bog of hypocrisy on which they both stand is actually the moral high ground, backed up by historical fact. The history of all nations is one of conquest, colonialism, empire, war, and disputed sovereignty; and the only way to maintain peace is to deal with the realities in the present, and look to the future.

The Argentine government would do well to accept, once and for all, that the worn and empty tub they have been thumping with such nationalistic zeal will arouse neither fear, sympathy, or respect across the Atlantic. Likewise, the UK must acknowledge that the islands are a residual reminder of a colonial past of which nobody should be particularly proud and that longevity of a claim does not necessarily make that claim legitimate. However, the islands will continue to be defended by the UK. They are home to a community of British citizens and, even more importantly, to consider handing over sovereignty to Argentina would be political suicide, such is the strong feeling the subject continues to provoke. Add to the mix the prospect of oil in the region and Argentina may as well make a claim for Cornwall.

Geographically, the UK has no reason to be in the South Atlantic, but there the Union Flag flies. The archipelago was of little importance to British people before 1982 and the British government was open to sovereignty negotiations with Argentina at various points in the decades preceding the Argentine invasion. What prevented a hand-over were the protests of the islanders themselves, who have always insisted they are British, as indeed they are.

However, although the UK may claim that it is the right to self-determination that guides such policies, this seemingly sacred right was not granted to the Chagossians, the former inhabitants of the Chagos Islands. In the 1970s, the entire population of the UK-controlled islands was forcibly relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles in order to make way for a US naval base. In 2009, Wikileaks revealed that the UK wished to declare the entire archipelago a marine reserve in order to "assure that U.S. interests were safeguarded" and so that "former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands". This national disgrace gets virtually no coverage in the UK press, presumably because the Chagos islands were populated by brown people who can't speak English or write letters to the Daily Mail. Either self-determination only extends to Anglo-Saxos or the British government is guilty of unspeakable hypocrisy.

In the same way, the Argentine government has painted itself into its own corner. The 'Malvinas Argentinas' attitude is ingrained in virtually every citizen from as early as it is possible to remember such things, and road signs, graffiti, murals, music and even school history lessons have transformed what should be a diplomatic issue into an important aspect of national identity. For this reason, it would be equally suicidal for any Argentine government to soften its stance. This is not helped by the nationalistic fervour President Cristina Kirchner stirs through petty acts of symbolism, such as giving a speech in front of a huge map of the islands painted with the Argentine flag.

As well as all this, the Falklands war itself is a national wound that has never fully healed.

Argentina would do well to reappraise their view of the conflict, as it was the Argentine military junta that initiated the bloodshed when it invaded – illegally and without warning – in April 1982. The sinking of the Belgrano remains a shameful episode for the UK (and possibly an unacknowledged war crime) but the Galtieri regime was at fault for the invasion and, through a mixture of propaganda, lies, negligence and poor capabilities, grievously betrayed the serviceman and civilians of Argentina. If Argentina accepted that the war was another crime committed by a dreadful dictatorship, then perhaps the discourse from Buenos Aires could slowly abandon sabre-rattling and adopt something closer to realpolitik pragmatism.

However, the current Argentine government is not the same as the corrupt, violent and reactionary butcher's shop taken on by Thatcher in 1982. President Kirchner is an experienced, canny, and democratically elected leader. The Argentine Republic has seen economic growth at an average rate of seven per cent for the last eight years and is becoming an emerging player on the global stage, such is the abundance of natural resources in the country. For this reason, the UK should treat Kirchner with respect; the rhetoric from Whitehall seems to have changed little in thirty years and Kirchner has the weight of an increasingly powerful, democratic and united continent behind her.

But Argentina is guilty of its own hypocrisy. Their insistence that the land should go to its 'rightful owners' is as meaningless as the UK's insistence of self-determination when you consider the way the indigenous tribes have been treated throughout the history of the republic. Indigenous peoples now make up little more than one per cent of the Argentine population and virtually all the land which used to be home to Amerindian tribes has been converted to farmland or deforested. Over the centuries, the indigenous population has been exploited for cheap labour, relocated to tiny reserves (as happened to the Wichí tribe, who were given 8km² of land in Salta province in 2005), or killed with impunity (as happened to 200 members of the Toba tribe at the hands of farmers and police in the 1920s). Argentina should remember this when painting itself as the victim of theft of land.

History is not really on the side of either country in this dispute, and it is for this reason that the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands war will go down as an opportunity wasted. With Borges' observation as a starting point, we could now look at the dispute as being between two impotent parents fighting over a child; and, as generally happens in such cases, it is the child who suffers. The islanders are fiercely patriotic to the UK and their identity seems to come as much from not being Argentine as it does from being British. Argentina's refusal to acknowledge the rights, or even the legitimacy, of the islanders has created a situation that will take decades of playing exceptionally nice to reverse. When the Argentine government accuses the UK of militarising the South Atlantic, it must recognise that by invading the islands in 1982, and subsequently refusing to accept that it was at fault, Argentina helped create a situation which now allows the British to act in such a heavy-handed manner. Likewise, the UK sending its most advanced cruiser and Prince William, as well as unconfirmed claims of deploying a nuclear submarine, looks like nothing more than the arrogant flexing of its emaciated military and colonial muscle.

If the South Atlantic turns out to be oil and gas rich, then both countries would do better to negotiate for some form of mutually beneficial agreement. Argentina could start by tempering its swagger, softening its position, and attempting to reach a deal for a share of the profits in return for refineries on the Argentine coast and passage between the islands and Argentina for British ships. It needs to forget the past and accept the present situation, which is largely of its own making. The UK, meanwhile, would benefit from concentrating on the future: as natural resources become scarcer, it is not the time to alienate the country from a united and strong Latin America, no matter how convenient and unifying a distraction the Falklands may prove to be domestically.

It would be optimistic to expect such things, but we can only hope that the respective governments of both Argentina and the UK can look pragmatically and dispassionately for a solution, leaving the foreign country of the past and looking to a future where things are done differently.

Nick Marwick is a legal journalist and freelancer living in London.

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