The Malvinas affair

British imperialism’s claim to sovereignty is all about hijacking oil reserves that rightfully belong to Argentina.

The Malvinas/Falklands issue is emerging again, making it even clearer in retrospect than it was before that the Falklands war back in 1982 was not about protecting colonists of British descent from the clutches of Argentine dictators, with whom most of them had no quarrel, but about rights to the wealth lying under the seabed in the Antarctic region.

Now, British AIM-listed companies – Desire Petroleum, Falkland Oil and Gas, Rockhopper and Borders & Southern – have sent a drilling rig to start work to explore the seabed close to the Falklands themselves in the expectation that it may contain billions of barrels of oil.

According to the Economist, “Exploratory wells were drilled in the waters off the Falklands in 1998. While suggesting there might be oil, further exploration was not seen as profitable at the low price then prevailing [$12 a barrel!]. Subsequent seismic surveys and the surge in the price of oil [currently standing at around $80 a barrel] prompted Desire Petroleum, a small British company, to hire the rig, which will drill up to ten wells for it and Rockhopper, another British outfit. Most will be in the north Falklands basin, with perhaps one or two in the south Falklands basin, which has not yet been explored at all. By the end of this year the 2,500 islanders will have a better idea of whether the Falklands are to become like Saudi Arabia with penguins.” (‘Plans to drill for oil in the Falklands provoke angry words from Argentina’, 17 February 2010)

According to UPI (United Press International), “The Falklands’ reported oil reserves [are] said to be second only to those in Saudi Arabia [at some 60 billion barrels].” (‘Argentina angling for US role in Falklands oil row’, 2 March 2010)

No wonder, then, that “A scramble is under way off South America’s Atlantic coast and the Antarctic. Argentina and Britain have extended claims over the continental shelf around the Falklands, and with Chile, Australia, New Zealand, France and Norway claiming waters further south; Russia also says it reserves the right to make a claim.” (‘Falklands oil prospects stir Anglo-Argentinian tensions’ by Rory Carroll, The Guardian, 8 February 2010)

As between Argentina and the UK, the fights over who is to own and control this oil, and whose are to be the profits arising from its sale, are taking the form of a legalistic wrangle over the question of sovereignty, with the question of oil being consigned to the status of a detail of little importance. The question of sovereignty over the islands, however, has been at issue long before any question of drilling for black gold has arisen, and it arose principally as a question of national liberation of south American colonies from formal rule by European colonial powers.

Martha Lauer, of the Council for Hemispheric Affairs,* explains:

In 1690, an English sailor named John Strong navigated the passage between the islands and named the route the Falkland Channel after the financial backer of the voyage, Anthony Cary, fifth Viscount of Falkland. In 1764, the island was first settled after being named Port Saint Louis by French navigator and military commander Louis Antoine de Bougainville. A year later, British sailor John Byron claimed the same area for Great Britain. Then, in 1766, Spain acquired the French colony of Port Saint Louis, later subordinating it to Argentine jurisdiction upon the dissolution of the Spanish Viceroyalty.

The Spanish attack that year sparked centuries of strife over ownership of the islands. In 1790, the UK ceded control of them to the Spanish and renounced all colonial ambitions. The Nootka Convention stated that Spain, Britain and the U.S. would have equal rights to fish in any of the areas, including in the Falkland Islands. The Spanish controlled the islands under the name ‘Islas Malvinas’ and had put the area under the control of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata (present day Argentina). In 1816, Argentina declared its independence from Spain and laid claim to surrounding areas that had been under the administrative jurisdiction of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata; these actions inevitably would lead to the Falkland War 105 years later. British forces returned to the area in January 1833, took control of the islands, forcibly repatriated the remainder of the Argentine settlement back to the Argentine mainland and repopulated the Falkland Islands with British nationals.” (‘Argentina and the Falklands/Malvinas: Could the conflict with Great Britain have been averted?’)

Thus, while the UK bases its claim to sovereignty over the Islands on the fact that its population, overwhelmingly of British descent, favours British sovereignty, the Argentines can point to (a) the illegality of the British seizure of the islands in 1833; (b) the geographical proximity of the Island to Argentina (300 miles) and their distance from the UK (8,000 miles); and (c) the arbitrary expulsion in 1833 of all Argentines living there in favour of colonists imported later from Britain.

For Britain supposedly to be backing the Falkland Islanders’ supposed right to choose which government should have sovereignty is hypocrisy of the first order. This is pointed out very poignantly by Noah Tucker on the website 21stcenturysocialism:

Were ‘democratic self-determination’ a genuine right for the inhabitants of the small but strategically important outposts around the world that Britain managed to retain in the twilight of its empire, one would suppose that it would be accorded universally to those inhabitants by the UK government. The sad fate of the Chagos islanders proves otherwise.

By the mid-1960s, the population of Britain’s main remaining colonies were demanding that ‘Britain must go’; and it was clear that the UK would have no choice but to allow Mauritius – as with the other countries that it controlled – to achieve independence. So the British government decided to detach the Chagos island archipelago – hitherto a part of Mauritius under the colonial administration – and hold onto it as British territory, insisting that the Mauritians would be allowed to leave the empire only on condition that Britain kept its ownership of the Chagos Islands.

The Chagos Islands became, like the Falkands and a dozen other small remnants of the British Empire around the world, a Crown Colony …

In the process which followed, which was that of the forced expulsion of the population of the Chagos from the islands, the islanders were offered no recourse to self-determination. Dispossessed of their homes and their means of livelihood, the democratic choice offered to the Chagossians was to become slum-dwellers on the Mauritius mainland. For the inconvenience of having to accommodate these refugees, the government of Maurituis was compensated with the princely sum of £3m.

Like the Falklanders, the Chagossians were approximately 2,000 in number. Unlike the Falklanders, they were dark skinned and not of British ancestry – they were the descendants of the African slaves and Indian workers who had been brought to the islands in the 18th and 19th centuries to labour on the coconut and copra plantations; and unlike the Falklanders, the perceived strategic interest of the British state lay not in keeping them in their homes but in expelling them from their homes. In the early 1970s, having accomplished the programme of cleansing the land from its population, Britain made good on a deal which it had negotiated with the United States of America, and the USA began constructing its naval and air force base on the largest of the Chagos islands, Diego Garcia; by which the United States has since maintained its strategic command of the Indian Ocean.” The name of the USA’s military base on Diego Garcia is Camp Justice!

As can be seen, British imperialism has no permanent principles, only permanent interests.

In any event, Argentina has, since 1833, never ceased to demand the return of these territories. As the Economist article admitted: “Each year a well-rehearsed performance takes place at the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation. Argentina’s government protests that Britain’s sovereignty over the islands it calls the Malvinas is a colonial injustice, and that the principle of territorial integrity demands that they be reunited with the mainland.

Argentina has much the stronger claim in law, but Britain has had de facto control for a very long time. As a result, the United Nations considers that the matter should be resolved by negotiation between the UK and Argentina, and has passed no fewer than nine General Assembly resolutions to that effect dating from 1965 on. These include Resolutions 31/49 (XXXI), 2065 and 3160.

Resolution 31/49, dating from 1976, specifically “calls upon the two parties to refrain from taking decisions that would imply introducing unilateral modifications in the situation while the islands are going through the process recommended in the above-mentioned resolutions [2065(XX) and 3160 (XXVIII), both calling for the issue of sovereignty over the islands to be resolved by negotiation]”.

Clearly, for British companies to be drilling for oil in the waters surrounding the Malvinas is a “unilateral modification in the situation”, since it has been done without consultation with the Argentine government and presupposes that the question of the sovereignty of the islands has been settled in Britain’s favour, which is certainly not the case.

The UN, however, has no power to intervene without the backing of the security council, which can never be obtained because Britain, as one of the its five permanent members, has a veto there on all substantive resolutions. This fact has caused Brazil’s president Lula to say that the security council is nothing but an anachronism tilted in favour of western powers.

Quite rightly, the (democratically-elected) Argentine president Cristina Kirchner has indignantly pointed out: “It is not acceptable that international law should not apply equally to everyone. The UN can take measures, even resort to force, against countries which fail to observe certain rules, but in the case of countries powerful enough to disregard them, nothing happens.” Never was a truer word uttered!

Whereas Argentina has at all times been able, ready and willing to negotiate as required by the General Assembly resolutions, this has not been the case for Britain, which has no intention of sharing – let alone giving up – any of its ill-gotten gains.

Frustrated by British intransigence, the Argentine government in 1982 invaded the islands, triggering an undeclared war, won by Britain with background help from US imperialism, in which “907 people [650 Argentines and 257 British], most of them very young men, were killed … equivalent to almost half the number of those on whose behalf the war was supposedly fought – a further 1,965 were injured, many of them permanently disabled. Hundreds more of the combatants have since succumbed to mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, and suicide, as a result of the psychological scars which they received.” (‘Who owns the Falklands’ by Noah Tucker,

Some 300 British veterans of that war have since committed suicide. Since the war, Argentina has tried to negotiate various compromises with Britain, but to no avail. On 27 September 1995, an accord was reached, on ‘Cooperation over Offshore Activities in the South West Atlantic’, but the ink had not dried before Britain was in breach of its terms. With no further progress being made towards resolving the sovereignty issue, Argentina abrogated the accord in 2007.

The full might of Britain’s military state machine is on hand to assert the right of British companies to drill for oil in the South Atlantic – UN Resolutions or no UN Resolutions – and to keep all the profits for themselves, denying Argentina even the smallest percentage.

There are four Typhoon Eurofighter jets based in the islands, plus over 1,000 military personnel defending the interests of private profiteers at huge public expense. HMS York (a Type 42 destroyer), HMS Clyde (a patrol vessel) and RFA Wave Ruler (a supply ship) are also on routine deployment in the South Atlantic.

For the moment, then, might is right – but the forces that may well overthrow that right are beginning to muster. Argentina has received the full backing for its position from all 33 presidents of Central and South America meeting at a summit in Cancún in February, who signed a document supporting the Argentine position, recognising Argentina’s sovereignty claim over the Malvinas and condemning the current oil drilling round by British companies. If these countries are prepared to back up this support through action, perhaps imposing trade sanctions against British companies, Britain might well be forced to back down.

Furthermore, there appears to be some question of whether US imperialism will be as prepared today as it was in 1982 to back the UK’s claim to sovereignty over the Malvinas. After all, there are the interests of US energy corporations to consider as well, and the US is struggling to maintain its hold over what it considers to be its backyard – a backyard that has increasingly been asserting its independence under the leadership of Cuba and Venezuela, bolstered by the growing economic power of Brazil and the alternative market and fair prices for Latin American products, plus ethical investment, provided by China!

The result is that “The US offered Britain only tepid support. The State Department said that it took no position on the sovereignty claims of either country.” (‘Escalating Falklands oil dispute goes to UN’ by Francis Elliott and Hannah Strange, The Times, 24 February 2010)

Obama will have to toss a coin to decide whether to support the UK, its principal ally in its middle-eastern and Afghan war efforts, or whether to try to ingratiate itself with Latin American political leaders. One way or another, if oil is in fact discovered by the British companies in the South Atlantic, we have no doubt that Argentina is going to have to be cut in on the deal.


* Founded in 1975, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a nonprofit, tax-exempt independent research and information NGO, was established in the US to promote the common interests of the American hemisphere, raise the visibility of regional affairs and increase the importance of the inter-American relationship, as well as encourage the formulation of rational and constructive US policies towards Latin America.