Compromise on the Falklands
Submitted by George Callaghan…
The Falklands Islands lie close to Argentina but are ruled by the United Kingdom. The Falklands (Las Malvinas in Spanish) were fought over in 1982. More men died fighting for the islands than lived on the islands! An honorable compromise on this issue would redound to the credit of both sides. It would make a war between the two nations impossible. A mature and equitable settlement is possible. We should strive for a world of peace. But first of all we need to set aside national chauvinism. It is hard for some to be unemotional about these islands bearing in mind that much blood has been spilt over this ground. But like most vexed questions it is far easier to deal with if you can switch off negative emotions such as fury, spite, hatred and sometimes even pride.
A celebrated Argentine writer quipped that the two countries going to war over these windswept rocks was like ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’. Many Britishers felt there was a principle at stake. Britishers had set foot on these islands in the early 17th century. Britons has been controlling the islands continuously since the 1830s. By 1982 a couple of thousands of people lived there. They were of British stock almost without exception and tended to be fiercely loyal to the House of Windsor. Therefore, most Britons believed that these islands were British in law and justice. The Argentine seizure of the islands was said to be an unlawful and an aggressive act.
Argentines had been raised to believe that Las Malvinas solely and rightfully appertained to Argentina. The Republic of the Argentine is a successor state of the Spanish Empire. Spain had once laid claim to these islands and Spaniards had been on the islands in the 17th century. Indeed, many toponyms in the islands are hispanophone. Further, Spain was four square behind Argentina on this issue. Argentina had never stinted in her claim to rule these islands. Buenos Aires maintained that the presence of a couple of thousands of Britishers was no object. Argentina was peopled by forty million people. A couple of thousand of people descended from illegal immigrants to Las Malvinas did not change the fact that these islands were Argentine under international law. The Argentine Government pointed out that the Britishers resident on the islands did not even have full British citizenship. They were British Citizens (Overseas). This second class citizenship indicated that even London did not truly believe that these islands were legitimately British soil.
In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The Iron Lady initiated some defence cuts. This retrenchment may have been fiscally sound. But it reduced the Royal Navy’s capability to defend the Falklands. The First Lord of the Treasury was later to bask in a reputation for being tough on defence. But it was her lack of foresight and her parsimony which made the Falklands Conflict more likely. When Thatcher became PM deconolisation was largely completed. The only overseas territories held by the UK were small ones where most people wanted to be British Overseas Territories. Thatcher was very eager to put the Zimbabwe Conflict to bed. By crafty diplomacy she succeeded at Lancaster House. When it came to the Falklands she seemed to regard this as a millstone around Britain’s neck. Thatcher decided to use a Tory MP named Nicholas Ridley for some diplomatic back channeling. Ridley and his wife went to Switzerland supposedly on holiday. The Ridleys checked into a hotel where he ‘bumped into’ an Argentine diplomat and his wife in the hotel bar. Ridley and his Argentine analogue then engaged in some secret negotiations. The United Kingdom wished to resolve the Falklands Dispute. London was willing to ceded the islands but wanted some concessions. The UK would not cede the islands immediately. Various options were considered. Perhaps the United Kingdom would formally acknowledge Argentine suzerainty over the islands in return for Argentina immediately leasing them back to the UK for a very long period. Or indeed the UK would agree to hand the islands over to Argentina in 99 years. There needed to be certain guarantees for the people resident on the islands.
For the Argentines these negotiating positions were exasperating. As an Argentine would see it the British had been illegally occupying the islands for almost 150 years. Argentina hardly wanted to prolong this deplorable state of affairs. But in the interests of peace the Argentines were prepared to grant some leeway to the British.
Bear in mind the context. In the late 1970s a military junta seized power in Argentina. El golpe de estado led to a fairly brutal regime. Thousands of people were put to death in Argentina as suspected communists. Many people lived in poverty. There was a brain drain out of the country. It was the height of the Cold War. The United States did not want a large Latin American country falling into the Soviet orbit. Therefore, Washington DC said very little about the crimes committed by the Buenos Aires colonels against their own people. The military regime was not only bloody it was also incompetent. The economy tanked and soon the Argentine Peso was experiencing hyperinflation.
Why did Ridley and his Argentine opposite number take their wives to the Swiss hotel? The idea was plausible deniability. If a journalist happened to see Ridely having a deep discussion with an Argentine diplomat he might smell a rat. As both men had their spouses with them they could claim they were holidaying and simply chanced to meet at the bar and found each other to be most congenial company. It was not much of an alibi. Both men took proposals back to their respective countries. Neither country had come far enough. Both governments rejected the proposals from the other side as insufficient. Even if a government had accepted the proposals from the other there would have been internal opposition. If Thatcher was minded to settle the issue with Argentina it would have been a hard sell to the Tory backwoodsmen.
The United Kingdom’s interest in the Falklands was not entirely altruistic. These islands could be crucial in a global conflict. They provide an air base and a possible naval base which would increase the UK’s reach. This would allow the UK to dominate the South Atlantic and Cape Horn. It was suspected that rich mineral resources lay beneath the territorial waters of the islands.
On April Fool’s Day 1982 the Argentine flotilla set sail for the Falklands. GCHQ picked up signals intelligence about this. Why was it not acted upon? Was it assumed to be an April Fool’s Day gag?
The President of Argentina was General Leopoldo Galtieri. With the currency in freefall and the regime’s stock at an all time low the junta felt it had to act. The British seemed to have no long term commitment to the islands. London had been in talks about giving the islands away. Defence cutbacks had rendered the UK unable to defend the islands. The Argentines concluded that with a show of force on the islands the British would just shrug it off and assume that the game was up. An Argentine presence on the islands would be fait accompli. When Argentines had taken over South Georgia the British had done nothing.
On 2 April 1982 the Argentine Army landed on the Falklands. Within hours they controlled Port Stanley. After a brief firefight the Royal Marines had surrendered. The Argentines quickly repatriated the British troops so as not to give the UK causus belli to rescue the Prisoners of War.
This article will not be a blow by blow account of the South Atlantic Conflict. We all know the outcome. The Argentines were repelled. Margaret Thatcher’s reputation was in the ascendant. To some this was her apotheosis. Gloriana thought she reigned supreme. It went to her head. She thought she was Queen Boadicea.
As the British Task Force sailed towards the Falklands peace feelers were put out. The United States tried to play the honest broker. President Reagan considered Argentina to be an important ally in the Southern Cone. Further, Latin American solidarity meant that every Spanish speaking country bar Chile backed the Argentine claim. Even communist Cuba supported the Argentine junta on this one. On the other hand the United Kingdom was a NATO member and a nuclear weapons state. Thatcher was incensed that Ronald Reagan vacillated. Argentine was fascist tyranny and the UK was a democracy. How could Regan equivocate in such a clear-cut case of good and evil? Argentina had never done anything for the United States. The UK had been an American ally in several conflicts since the 1840s.
Nevertheless, some peace proposals were put forward. It would appear that the British delegation merely pretended to negotiate. Thatcher wished to seem as though she tried to achieve peace. If a peace agreement had been reached then hundreds of lives would have been saved. We now know that the UK won. Before the conflict the outcome was no foregone conclusion. The conflict was more of a close run thing than we now realise. On land the British Army outclassed the Argentines easily. However, the Argentine Air Force gave the RAF a run for its money. The Argentines struck several Royal Navy ships with missiles. Some of these exploded with devastating consequences. The complement of some ships was decimated. However, several missiles failed to go off. If all of them had gone off then the losses would have been so severe that the UK might have called off the operation. An Argentine submarine fired six torpedoes at a Royal Navy aircraft carrier. All of them missed. If even one of them had struck true then the ship might well have listed. If the aircraft carrier had sunk then the UK would have been left without sufficient air cover to prosecute the conflict.
Where are we now almost 40 years after the South Atlantic Conflict? The islands are still UK ruled. Some people who are not of British ancestry have moved into the islands. A referendum a few years ago demonstrated the settled will of a very high majority of people there to remain in a relationship with the UK. Buenos Aires will say this is neither here nor there. Those people were brought out from the UK. They are not indigenous and their wishes ought to be disregarded. There are other cases where people in a place do not get their way and that is accepted by international law.
It may seem glib to say but there is right and wrong on both sides. There may well never have been a territorial dispute where one side was 100% right and the other side was 100% wrong. Even if you believe, for instance, that Argentina is the rightful claimant it would be churlish to pretend that there is no merit whatsoever to the Britannic claim.
For the past several years the Argentines have been raising the issue. The UK is now as mighty as it once was. With Brexit on the horizon the United Kingdom might soon be lonely. Argentina is not the economic basket case it once was. It can mobilise global opinion more effectively than before. When Prince William was sent there with the RAF the Argentines protested. London claimed it was simply a routine deployment but the Argentines were not convinced.
What concessions could the UK offer short of handing the islands over completely? The United Kingdom could grant Argentina ownership the cemetery that contains the remains of Argentines killed fighting on the islands. The UK could promise never to hold nuclear weapons on the islands. London could guarantee not to station more than a specified number of troops there. At the moment troop levels seldom exceed 500. The Argentines invaded with 20 000. So the British could promise not to station more than 20 000 there. That might be foolhardy in that the Argentines would then know they would have to invade with only a bit more than 20 000 to have a good chance of victory. The British could agree to use the name Las Malvinas as well as the Falklands. The UK could allow Argentine immigration to the islands. London might be careful about this lest Argentines soon outnumber Britons.
None of the ideas adumbrated hereinbefore would constitute a permanent settlement. These concessions are largely cosmetic. More far reaching proposals would include ruling the islands as a condominium. The UK could grant West Falkland to Argentina in return for Argentina recognizing the UK’s absolute right to East Falkland which is inhabited. The Argentines might build a base on West Falkland and use that to retake East Falkland so that might be rash for Britain to agree too. The UK could give one of the minor islands to Argentina. That would probably be insufficient to tempt Argentina. Another possibility is handing it over in 99 years or indeed lease-back. These are two of the ideas that were discussed prior to the 1982 conflict.
There is a plethora of different solutions. A combination of them might work best. The point is that there are countless ways to avoid conflict. It takes imagination and valour. Whomsoever proposes these audacious peace plans will be denounced as limp wristed and treacherous. But by taking risks for peace, by preventing your country being involved in a potentially disastrous war a person is being a true patriot.
Be ever mindful of the words of Edward VII: ‘Peace hath her victories not less renowned than those of war.’ There are some servicemen and servicewomen who are eager to fight. They think that to be good military personnel they ought to be pugnacious. But there are battle veterans who are passionate about striving for peace because they have seen the horrors of war first hand. They have nothing to prove. As Edward VIII said peace offers a soldier service which is just as honourable as wartime service.
The Argentine Military has been severely cut back. It is hardly capable of launching an operation to recover the islands. But that could change. In the mind time it behoves Britain not to rub Argentina’s nose in humiliation. In 2013 when Argentina raised the temperature on the question Cameron wisely cooled it. A hotead might have dispatched a nuclear submarine. Happily Cameron did not indulge in such puerile sabre rattling. If Latin American countries imposed sanctions on the United Kingdom then the UK economy would feel the pinch. As the UK is supposedly about to leave the European Union trade deals need to be negotiated with Mercosur – the South American trade bloc. Argentina will insist that any agreement is contingent on concessions on the Malvinas issue.
The British Armed Forces have also suffered swingeing cuts. This has cut not just fat but also muscle. The British military is puny compared to that of several other countries. This statement is not disrespectful to people in the British Armed Forces. It is a question of numbers and equipment. Could the UK even defend the Falklands if it wanted to? It is highly questionable. If the UK were engaged in another Middle Eastern escapade and the Falklands were invaded then the UK might not have the strength to liberate the islands. It might not be the Argies who invaded but perhaps another nation. Indeed, Argentina might one day acquire a potent ally who does the fighting for her. The British should not be so cocksure and conceited about its ability to defend the islands or indeed to retake them if they should fall into the hands of a foreign power. Far wiser to be humble and to seek to prevent Argentina in particular from ever wishing to fight for these islands.
For the foregoing reasons it would be wise and meet for the UK to make a generous offer to the Argentines. It is possible that a decent agreement can be arrived it. It might transpire that the two sides fail to reach an agreement in which case the status quo would continue. But Britain would at least have attempted to end the dispute in a wise and brave manner. If Argentina ever raised attacked the Falklands in future then the UK could prove that the UK had bent over backwards to accommodate Argentine concerns. If Britain could say we strove to be reasonable but the Argentines were intransigent then it would do credit to Britain and win much international sympathy. The Argentines have nothing now; not an inch of these islands. If they were given something then it would be a major gain for them. Leaving the Argentines feeling humiliated will store up more trouble in the long term. They are smarting from their defeat. London may have forgotten about the islands but in Buenos Aires it is an issue that still suppurates. Graffiti all over Argentina attests to the emotional purchase the issue has.
Some acidulous Britons reading things will be choking on their milk pudding. They will say that over 250 Britons sanctified the soil of the Falklands with their life’s blood. Yes, it is true that men were killed defending their islands. Not all of them will have agreed with the cause. So let us not try to posthumously conscript them into the ranks of the intransigent. If they were alive today a few of them might have been amenable to compromise. Many Britons have left their bones in many far-flung parts of the globe. The United Kingdom does not claim all of those from New Zealand, to Pakistan, to Azerbaijan, to Tangier, to Malawi, to Canada and Malta. Times change. We moved on, we strike deals and we do what me can for peace. This article does not propose to hand over all of the Falklands or even half of it. However, the UK should find the courage, the sagacity and the moral decency to recognize that the Argentine claim is not without merit. The United Kingdom should go at least a small way towards meeting the Argentine wishes. So do not be immature and swaggering as if we have something to prove. Let us do away with unpalatable nationalistic bravado and macho posturing. Blessed are the peacemakers!
Argentina is not ruled by a pernicious junta as it once was. It is a healthy democracy. The economy is fairly healthy. If the worst came to the worst and the Falklands were wrested by Argentina then life for the Falklanders would not be much worse than it is currently. Argentina is a free country and ironically the UK had a role in bringing that about. The hands down defeat by the United Kingdom shattered the prestige of the junta which then resigned. This ushered in the period of democracy.
It does not look likely that there will be a conflict in the South Atlantic in the foreseeable future. But one could erupt in decades to come. However, this is entirely avoidable. All it would take is a little patient diplomacy and some generosity of spirit. If the UK is brave enough to seize the chance then it could ensure that no-one is ever killed fighting for these islands.