Thursday, September 26, 2013

Island Disputes Part I: The Falklands

Most people are probably aware that the south Atlantic islands known in Britain as The Falkland Islands are at the center of a long-standing dispute between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Argentina (which calls the islands Las Malvinas). In 1982 this dispute sparked a brief war between the UK and Argentina when the Argentine regime of General Leopoldo Galtieri (acting president of the military junta then ruling Argentina) invaded and occupied the islands before being soundly beaten in a British counter-attack ordered by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that removed the Argentine military presence and inflicted a defeat on Argentina that brought down the military regime. Fewer people, however, may be aware of why these islands, seemingly insignificant, continue to cause tensions and how the dispute over their sovereignty came to be. First of all, it is important to remember that this is a sovereignty dispute, which means that both Britain and Argentina claim to hold sovereignty over them. It is not, for example, the same thing as the tensions between the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Spain over Gibraltar. The status of Gibraltar is not really in dispute; Gibraltar is British and the Spanish are not happy about it. With the Falklands, it is not a case of Argentina simply being disgruntled or upset that the islands, for some reason, should have been given to them and have not. They claim that they have always belonged to them and rightly still do. This makes sovereignty disputes particularly troublesome because, at any time and for any reason, a conflict like that seen in 1982 could break out.

Captain John Byron
The claim by Argentina that the Falklands belong to them is, it should be made clear at the outset, obviously ridiculous given that ownership of the islands pre-dates the founding of the country of Argentina by centuries. The first people to land on the islands were British sailors in 1690 when Captain John Strong sailed through the area and named the islands for the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Viscount of Falkland. The British planned to settle the islands but were beaten to the punch by the Kingdom of France (yes, France is involved in this too) when Louis Antoine de Bougainville planted a small French colony in East Falkland in 1764. Then, in 1765, the British returned when Captain John Byron landed on another nearby island, Saunders Island, and claimed the whole island group for Great Britain. The French settlement in East Falkland was not even noticed. The British did not find out about the French presence until the next year in 1766 which was also the year that France sold their claim on the islands to Spain with the understanding that the Spanish would keep the British out of the neighborhood. Spain claimed the islands based, rather shakily, on the Treaty of Tordesillas which was a refinement of a papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI which divided the world between Spain and Portugal (Spain got the Americas and Portugal got Africa and Asia). Because of this treaty the Spanish, or at least some of them, claimed that the Falklands should belong to them. However, the islands were not mentioned in the treaty nor did Britain or France (or any other powers) recognize the authority of the Pope to divide up the unexplored lands of the earth (hence all the non-Spanish and non-Portuguese colonies all over the Americas, Africa, India and East Asia).

In 1766 another British expedition landed and established a British fort on Saunders Island named Port Egmont. The Spanish never knew of this outpost until 1770 at which time they found out and the Spanish authorities in Buenos Aires sent a military expedition to Port Egmont which forced the British to withdraw though they still maintained their claim on the islands. They had arrived first and none of the treaties invoked by Spain (the Treaty of Tordesillas or the Treaty of Utrecht) to back up their claim applied to the Falkland Islands. Nonetheless, for the time being, Spain was in control of them. When the Spanish empire in the Americas began to fall apart, British entrepreneurs endeavored to settle the islands again in the 1820’s. By this time, the British presence was protested by the revolutionary government of the “United Provinces of the River Plate” or the “United Provinces of South America” which was the rebel government that had broken from Spain and taken control of what had formerly been the Spanish Viceroyalty of the River Plate (Rio de la Plata) and which presided over territory that would eventually become the northernmost reaches of the Republic of Argentina.

Luis Vernet
In 1833 the British returned, forced out the meager Spanish/Argentine military presence on the islands and established British control over the islands once again. Today, some in Argentina trace their claim back to Luis Vernet. He tried twice to colonize the islands, failing each time, before establishing a minor presence. However, he reported to the British consul at every step and though the government in Buenos Aires declared him to be governor on their behalf, the political situation on the South American mainland was far from settled and Vernet himself even requested permission to make his colony a British protectorate if the British were to resume their colonization of the islands. The British reestablished control of the islands and protected the existing settlement though most eventually left, despite British efforts to persuade them to stay. The islands, aside from that brief period in 1982, have remained in British hands and occupied by British settlers ever since that time. Argentina, however, usually asserts their claim based on the actions of an American mercenary sea captain sailing in the employ of the United Provinces of the River Plate named Colonel David Jewett who, in 1820, raised the United Provinces flag over the islands. The problem, or at least one of them, is that the very status of the United Provinces was unclear at the time as is the connection it holds to the country of Argentina today.

The United Provinces were formed, usurping authority from the Spanish Viceroy, in 1810 and were not recognized by any major foreign powers. Moreover, they did not actually declare independence from Spain until 1816. Britain, for example, did not recognize Argentine independence until 1823, a year after the Jewett episode. The Kingdom of Spain did not recognize Argentine independence until 1857! Furthermore, though modern Argentina claims descent from the United Provinces, it was certainly not the same political entity that exists today. Bolivia and Paraguay broke away and the United Provinces were succeeded by the Argentine Confederation of 1831-1861 which was itself succeeded by the rival Republic of Argentina and State of Buenos Aires. Obviously, the claim of the modern country of Argentina to the real or imagined territories of past revolutionary governments that were always in a state of transition, is extremely tenuous at best. What makes the modern-day claim of Argentina to sovereignty over the Falklands really rich is that it is based on someone planting a flag on them and occupying them, all the while claiming that when the British did the same thing that this should be considered illegal and should not count as a way of determining sovereignty. Because a government which they claim as a predecessor of their own held possession of the islands, very briefly, Argentina asserts that this negates the British holding possession of the islands for centuries.

God Save the Queen!
The bottom line is this: it is a matter of historical fact that the British were the first to set foot on the Falkland Islands. Their claim predates all others and that is a fact. The Spanish based their claim on the islands on the Treaty of Utrecht which stated that all territories formerly held by Spain, prior to the War of the Spanish Succession, should be returned to them. However, the Falkland Islands were not named in the treaty nor did Spain hold the islands prior to the War of Spanish Succession as stipulated in the treaty. The earliest claims by any government with any connection to modern Argentina were made by a government that neither Britain nor Spain recognized and which was basing its very existence on the usurpation by force of Spanish territory (it being a revolutionary war for independence). A successful revolution can seize power from a legitimate monarch and can even obtain the recognition of that monarch of their authority over a given territory. However, they cannot claim what they did not have, what “their” government had never held and which they failed to take. The British right to sovereignty over the Falkland Islands is as legally sound as can be possible and the fact of the matter is, even if the British were to renounce their sovereignty over the Falklands, they would rightly belong to the Kingdom of Spain and not the Republic of Argentina.

1 comment:

  1. I do enjoy the hypocrisy of republicans! Argentinia, the state responsible for the 'Conquest of the Desert' and the suppression of the Mapuche peoples, now lambasts Britain for its imperialism!

    The fact that Argentina never controlled the Falklands won't deter it any - if precedence were an issue, they wouldn't have set out to 'civilize' the Patagonian region in the 1870s.


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