The Falklands Revisited

Renewed oil drilling and tougher regulations on shipping lead to confusion and renewed tensions between Britain and Argentina

News | Sarah Rabl | April 2010

A decision in early February to restart drilling operations off the Falkland Islands has heightened tensions between Great Britain and Argentina and revived a long-standing conflict over sovereignty that led to war in 1982. The drilling by British oil company Desire Petroleum began Feb. 22, angering the Argentine government and triggering new regulations on all vessels en route between Argentina and the Falklands.

The decree handed down the next day, Feb. 23, by Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner requires special pre-authorization by Argentine authorities under significantly tougher conditions. Sir Nicholas Winterton, chair of the Parliamentary Falklands group, attacked the decree for being "pathetic and useless," according to the BBC, designed to slow the economic upswing of the Falklands.

In issuing the decree, Argentina claims jurisdiction under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which "provides for ships of all States to enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea of a coastal state." The British Embassy in Vienna thinks they have gone too far.

"As a matter of international law, the exercise of these rights may not be made subject to the prior authorisation of a coastal state," a spokesman for the British Embassy told The Vienna Review. They described the pre-authorization procedure as likely to infringe on the daily business of the Falkland Islands, reporting that the United Kingdom does not take the requirement seriously. "Domestic Argentine legislation will have no effect on marine traffic within the jurisdictional waters of the Falkland Islands," the spokesman said.

The formerly Spanish Falkland Islands have been part of the sovereign British overseas territories since the end of the Falklands War in 1982. Despite contentions of international law, the Falklands had been under de facto British control since 1833, though Argentina has always claimed sovereignty. Las Malvinas, the Argentine name for the Falkland Islands was originally explored as terra nullius (no-man’s-land) by France in the 18th century and have continued, throughout history, to be disputed territory. During the 74-day Guerra de las Malvinas of 1982 over territorial sovereignty, there were more than 900 casualties.

By 1998, Great Britain had already started offshore drilling in the coastal waters of the Falklands. However, the quantities found were not commercially viable. These renewed drilling attempts could "go on for six months, with at least six wells being drilled," according to the British Embassy.

Despite rumours, there are at present no estimates as to the amount of hydrocarbons in the ground.

Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana, addressing the United Nations, said he considered the British drilling in Falkland waters as "illegal acts that are contrary to international law," as reported by the Austrian daily Der Standard.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has spoken publicly in support of the Argentine position and rejects all British plans in search of energy resources in the area, according to a report by the Global Information System (GIS), part of the Washington-based International Strategic Studies Association. The renewed crisis could produce an inept response from Downing Street, further discrediting Labour and Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

This would be positive for Chávez, who would prefer a Conservative government in London; however, were the crisis to reach military dimensions, the U.K. could move forces from Afghanistan to the Falklands. The revival of conflict, Chávez believes, could help Brown in the June general elections, as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher benefited from the Falklands war of 1982, as stated by the GIS.

At present, Argentina’s weak military suggests that armed conflict with Britain is far from their thoughts, while the intense military involvement of British troops in Afghanistan appears to decrease the likelihood of a strike against Argentina (although the British military does have the resources).

In addition, relations with Argentina on a "bilateral and international basis" overall are good, according to the British Embassy.

"We are dealing with the current issue through the customary diplomatic channels, and with our customary emphasis on explaining our position with transparency, clarity and patience," the embassy spokesman said. "However, we have, of course, extensively planned for every (however unlikely) eventuality."

Renewed negotiations on the sovereign territory of the islands, he said, are not at stake. The British Embassy made clear: "We have no doubt about our sovereignty over the Falkland Islands and the surrounding maritime areas."

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