With so much else going on in the world few people would have expected that a small group of islands in the far south Atlantic would be creating big news. But - once again - the long-standing dispute between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands has flared up, threatening division not just between the two countries but more widely within the international community.
The event that has triggered the new tensions was the arrival of a British oil rig, the Ocean Guardian, in the waters to the north of the Falklands. On Monday it started exploring for oil and gas reserves and Argentina is outraged.
The Argentineans may have lost the 1982 war with Britain over the Falklands (or the Malvinas as they are known there), but the country has never given up its claim to sovereignty over the islands. That claim rests on two things: geography and history. The islands lie off the coast of Argentina and essentially depend on that country for their communications. Historically they were legally under the control of Spain when Argentina was itself a Spanish colony. When Argentina won its independence from Spain the new country claimed the islands too. But in 1833 the British occupied them and the Malvinas have been the Falklands ever since.
So the British established their claim to the islands in international law and the 2,500 residents have long been resolutely pro-British, but the islands became an increasing headache to British governments which had to find scarce resources to defend them - and they’re an awfully long way away and have little strategic importance.
In the late 1970s diplomatic attempts were made by both Labour and Tory governments to find a way to square the circle – to accede to Argentine claims of sovereignty and dispose of a costly remnant of British imperialism while protecting the rights and interests of the islanders themselves. But these attempts came to nothing, partly because of resistance to any such deal in the House of Commons.
In 1982 the military junta ruling Argentina seized the opportunity created when Margaret Thatcher’s government, anxious to make savings in its defence budget, reduced the naval protection of the islands. The Argentines invaded. Mrs Thatcher sent her taskforce, the islands were retaken, the junta fell, democracy was restored to Argentina and the international community reaffirmed Britain’s claim to the Falklands.
Since then both Britain and Argentina have sought to foster good relations with each other on other matters while agreeing to differ on the Falklands/Malvinas. But from the Argentinian point of view such a modus vivendi was tolerable only so long as Britain did not seek to exploit the economic potential of the islands. The arrival of the Ocean Guardian has put the cat among the seagulls. It is estimated that there could be 60 billion barrels of oil to be pumped up, so the stakes are high.
Earlier this week the Argentineans won the support of the Rio group of 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries not only in objecting to the oil exploration but also on the issue of sovereignty. President Lula of Brazil said: “It is not possible that Argentina is not the owner while England is, despite being 14,000km away.”
The Argentinian foreign minister, Jorge Taiana, took his case to the United Nations, asking the secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, to facilitate negotiations between the two countries. But the secretary-general is unlikely to be able to take things further without the authorisation of the Security Council on which Britain has a veto.
The British ambassador to the UN, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, reaffirmed the validity of Britain’s claim to sovereignty. He said: “This position is underpinned by the principle of self-determination as set out in the UN Charter. We are also clear that the Falkland Islands government is entitled to develop a hydrocarbons industry within its waters, and we support this legitimate business in Falklands’ territory.”
But some commentators are asking whether, even if Britain has the right to authorise oil exploration, it is in its interests to do so. And they go further: is it in our interests to persist with our sovereignty over the islands?
The British government argues that our prime responsibility is to the people of the islands and, overwhelmingly, they wish the islands to stay British. As Mrs Thatcher used to put it: their interests must be ‘paramount’. Secondly, they argue that the economic benefits to Britain could be considerable.
Those who think Britain should rethink its whole approach point out that now Argentina is a democracy rather than a military dictatorship, the islanders have much less cause for alarm about becoming part of Argentina. Secondly, they argue that while self-determination is an important principle it is not the only issue at stake. The people of Hong Kong would no doubt have preferred to remain British rather than become part of China in 1997, but other considerations trumped their wishes.
Furthermore, they argue that the islanders are not the only people who have to be taken into account. As well as those 2,500 people, the 60 million British people need to be put into the equation. It is they who have to foot the bill of protecting the islands and if they were to reach the conclusion that the game was not worth the candle, then they should have the right to deny the islanders their wishes.
Most of all, those who think the current situation should not persist argue that Britain’s wider interests require a change in the status of the Falklands. It is much more important, they say, that we should have good relations with emerging powers such as Brazil and vestiges of our imperial past should not be allowed to jeopardise such relations. Even our ties with the United States, they say, would be improved if we were to cut a deal with Argentina over the islands. At the time of the 1982 war the American government, although ultimately supportive of Britain, was divided, with the secretary of state, Alexander Haig (who died last week), taking a much more pro-Argentinian position against what he saw as British imperialism. So the time has come for Britain to negotiate. A deal should be struck which establishes Argentinian sovereignty over the islands while allowing the islanders to remain British and which perhaps shares the spoils of oil exploration.
What’s your view? Should Britain ignore Argentina’s protests, carry on drilling for oil and maintain in perpetuity its sovereignty over the islands? Or should it open negotiations with Argentina?