Falkland Islands in dispute over oil reserves


LIMA, Peru — The simmering tension between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falkland Islands, a remote South Atlantic archipelago, continues to rise as the 30th anniversary of the countries’ brief but bloody conflict over the territory nears.

The British insist the land and citizens there are a self-governing UK territory. But Argentina has never relinquished its claim to the islands, which are called Las Malvinas and lie just 300 miles off its coast.

Now, with the recent discovery by a British energy company of major oil reserves in the waters off the islands, the dispute has taken on a new urgency.

The result: a carefully choreographed diplomatic tango, including a display of military might by London, albeit one that is highly unlikely to break out into armed conflict.

Still, tenions are high.

London has confirmed that it will send HMS Dauntless, a large, state-of-the-art destroyer to the islands in the coming months to replace the aging frigate HMS Montrose.

Read more: The Amazon's carbon cowboys

Separately, the British government has confirmed reports that it is also dispatching a nuclear submarine to patrol the waters around the Falklands.

Meanwhile, Prince William, grandson to Queen Elisabeth II and second in line to the British throne, is starting a six-week posting to the islands as a Royal Air Force search-and-rescue pilot.

Determined not to be outdone, Buenos Aires has continued its diplomatic efforts to isolate London while also launching a series of verbal broadsides against what it regards as Britain’s antiquated, imperialist determination to hang onto the islands.

Over the weekend, at a summit in Caracas of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, the left-leaning regional alliance known in Spanish as ALBA, five Caribbean nations announced they will refuse vessels sailing under the Falkland Islands’ flag to dock at their ports.

Cuba, Nicaragua and Dominica, as well as Commonwealth members Antigua-Barbuda and St Vincent-Grenadines, have now joined Chile, Brazil and Uruguay, who made a similar decision last December.

Read more: Falkland anniversary heralds new tensions

In an official communiqué, Argentine foreign minister Hector Timerman strongly criticized Britain’s show of force and repeated his country’s accusations that London has flouted a UN resolution calling on the countries to settle their differences over the Falklands’ sovereignty through talks.

“Sending warships … shows that the United Kingdom operates with colonialist parameters and acts as if it was above the international legal system,” he added.

But the bellicose rhetoric may be just that.

Britain would probably only resort to using its firepower in response to an Argentine attack, something that the Argentines themselves ruled out after the 1982 war, when Buenos Aires renounced force as a method to win sovereignty of the islands that have been under British control since 1833.

And even the diplomatic gestures may not add up to that much.

Most Falkland vessels actually sail under Great Britain’s Red Ensign, which no Latin American or Caribbean government has threatened to bar.

Meanwhile, Prince William’s posting may be highly symbolic — especially for the British — but during previous military tours he and his brother, Prince Harry, have been held back from frontline duty in genuine conflict zones, such as Afghanistan.

Cynics also suspect that both governments’ real motivations are the oil and gas reserves thought to be lying under the seabed around the sparsely populated archipelago.

Additionally, the UK may be calculating that the Falklands could give it a claim to a slice of Antarctica’s natural resources, including both fisheries and hydrocarbons.

The leading Argentine newspaper Clarin called President Cristina Kirchner’s commitment to the Falklands into doubt with a report on the dilapidated state of a cemetery on the islands for Argentine military personnel.

Inaugurated in October 2009, the cemetery is the final resting place of 237 of the Argentine troops — 114 of them in unidentified graves — who died during the war from April to June 1982. 

According to the paper, the walls of a monument with the names of 649 Argentine dead are on the point of collapse while the South Atlantic’s strong winds and rains have stripped some of the graves of paint and lettering.

Inaugurated in October 2009, the Argentine legislature passed a law in the same year making its upkeep the Argentine government’s responsibility.

“The growing deterioration of its structure is a slap to the national discourse regarding the islands,” Clarin concluded.

Remote, windswept and with a tiny local economy based largely around sheep-rearing, the islands made global headlines in 1982 when the Argentine military dictatorship invaded in a bid to distract attention from its brutal authoritarian excesses and the failure of its economic policies.

The occupation brought thousands of cheering Argentines into the streets. But their jubilation was short-lived, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatched a convoy of warships to the South Atlantic where Britain’s greater firepower and professional army routed the Argentine troops, many of them poorly equipped teenage conscripts.

London now justifies its refusal to relinquish the islands on the basis of the self-determination of the islanders, most of who are descended from immigrants from the United Kingdom.

Prime Minister David Cameron recently told the British parliament: "The absolutely vital point is that we are clear that the future of the Falkland Islands is a matter for the people themselves, and as long as they want to remain part of the United Kingdom and be British they should be able to do so."  

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.