I reckon few Britons know this (and for that matter, probably few Argentines). The Falkland Islands are not ‘just off the Argentine coast’. At the closest point, they are 185 nautical miles (or 213 statute miles) from Isla de los Estados, just off the south east tip of Argentina. They are about 250 miles (nautical) from the mainland coast.
Argentina accepts the principle that in international maritime law, territorial waters stretch to 12 miles offshore. That’s a key point in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The 162 signatories include Argentina and the United Kingdom.
So – at the closest point – the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas, lie 15 times beyond Argentina’s territorial waters. The distance is such that a sailor bound from one territory to the other would not see land for 80% of the journey. The Falklands are as far from Argentina as London is from Paris or Amsterdam. They are twice as far as Cuba is from mainland Florida.
At that distance, the Falkland Islands obviously lie beyond Argentina’s territorial waters. But the UN treaty also spells out the definition of a country’s exclusive economic zone. That’s up to 200 miles offshore. The Falkland Islands are just within that radius.
It’s quite understandable that Argentina should want to exploit resources (such as oil and fish) inside its EEZ. But then the United Kingdom wants to do the same.
Both countries claim sovereignty over the islands. International recognition is varied, and the United Nations is neutral on the issue. But Argentina’s difficulty is that the Union Flag flies over the islands. And, since the war in 1982, no British government dare let them go.
The prospect of oil near the Falklands has been envisaged for several decades, but the first successful strike wasn’t until 2010. The islands have long been of great symbolic significance to both the UK and Argentina, but now there is a significant economic interest too. That is more than can be said for Northern Ireland, in which a previous British government said it had “no selfish economic or strategic interest” (Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, November 1990). I know of no revision to this.
As with Northern Ireland, the deciding principle should be that of self-determination: the right of the Falkland Islanders to decide their own future. That principle is enshrined in the United Nation’s founding charter, and it represents the United Kingdom’s strongest argument.
The Falkland Islands have never had a native people. The people who live there now – mainly descendants of the plantation – are the only stakeholders to the question of self-determination. Overwhelmingly, they consider themselves British, and we should respect that.
But there is an awkward stalemate. Argentina suffered a military defeat in 1982. It surrendered its occupation, but not the question of sovereignty. Now despite (indeed because of) its presence in the region, the United Kingdom is losing influence in South America, where other nations back Argentina’s claim.
As oil investors are tempted into the region, they will want the question of sovereignty resolved. It would be a risky venture to invest in Falkland oil without assurances about the stability of the contracts. It is in the interests of Argentina to play up those risks.
I believe there is no near-term prospect of a deal with Argentina; certainly not on the essential question of sovereignty. Without a deal, the United Kingdom must be ultra-steadfast on its defence of the islands. As Argentina revisits its ambitions, it’s no surprise the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Dauntless has been sent to the region. The British government described that deployment as ‘routine’. But if Buenos Aires is concerned about the ‘militarisation’ of the South Atlantic, at least it has got the message.
The UK is not about to go to war with Argentina. Perhaps – as a deterrent – HMS Dauntless will help keep the peace.