UNITED NATIONS — The Falkland Island Road Show has come to the United Nations, with all the political trappings of drama, hyper-nationalism, and self-righteous moralizing. The focus remains on the future of this windswept British territory in the South Atlantic claimed by, and also once invaded by, neighboring Argentina.
Now thirty years after the end of the bitter but brief Falklands war, the political players are posturing, happily not on naval vessels in the South Atlantic but in the quiet and sleepy chambers of the UN’s Decolonization Committee alongside the East River. And as they have since the 1980s the Argentines have pressed, with significant Latin American cheerleading, to resolve this unresolved “colonial issue,” while the British simply restate the obvious; the Falklands remain a self-governing territory.
At the time of the 1982 invasion, Argentina was run by a military junta who unwisely played the nationalism card and seized the islands 300 miles off the coast of South America.
The Argentine generals figured this would be an easy win and a political boost for a teetering government. They picked on the wrong guy, or in this case woman, and soon Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government struck back with resolute fury; a Royal Navy task force was assembled from 8,000 miles away and recaptured the atoll.
Today the salvos are not lethal but rhetorical. President Christina Fernandez Kirchner and her entourage descended upon New York on “Tango 01” to bring a high profile political road show to a normally somnolent UN committee. An impassioned plea by President Kirchner, demanded diplomatic discussions with Britain on the future of the Malvinas.
Regarding the “Question of the Malvinas Islands,” a consensus resolution backed by Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela along with Chile states that “the only way to put an end this special and particular situation is a negotiated settlement of the dispute existing between the governments of the two countries and requests the parties to consolidate the process of dialogue and cooperation.”
Chile’s Vice Foreign Minister Fernando Schmidt advised the committee, “For the Latin American and Caribbean nations, it is important for the question of the Malvinas Islands to be settled once and for all.”
Later comments from the sublime to the ridiculous saw Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, Mainland China, Nicaragua and Syria speak in support of Argentina’s position.
But is there more than bruised nationalism? Sovereignty over the Falklands, and the farther away South Georgia and South Sandwich islands and the surrounding maritime exclusive economic zones would allow Argentina access to huge fishing rights as well as potentially rich petroleum resources.
The Falkland Islands are home to 3,000 islanders who resolutely wish to remain British; the islands remain a self-governing British territory with their own constitution, flag and Anglo traditions, which have nothing to do with Argentina. The British stress there was no displaced indigenous population, nor did an assimilated population come to speak English after the British seized the largely uninhabited islands in 1833.
Relative proximity of the rocky island atoll to the Argentine mainland (about 300 miles) does not a case of sovereignty make. If one considers so many geographical anomalies; the Channel Islands, a stone’s throw off the coast of Normandy in France, remain British though here with a very strong French cultural/linguistic influence. Or the ethnically divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where two very distinct ethnic and linguistic communities live in separation. But belongs neither to Greece nor Turkey.
Modern Argentina is a democracy which sadly still suffers from the economic undertow of state socialism, endemic strikes, and the political afterglow of the Peron era. Still Christine Fernandez Kirchner’s government knows how to grandstand and playing the Falkland/Malvinas card works well politically back in Buenos Aires.
As the Buenos Aires Herald columnist Martin Gambarotta added editorially, “The President’s taste for the spectacular, if anything, has forced Britain to hit back with some rhetorical fireworks of its own.”
Indeed Britain has announced that the Falkland Islanders (all 1,600 voters among them) will hold a referendum on their status next year. But as Mike Summers, a Member of the Legislative Assembly told the UN that “unwelcome and unsubstantiated claim on our country by Argentina remains and is pursued with increasing vigor.” He added, “Falkland Islanders are comfortable with our-post colonial relationship with the UK. We have the right to move away from that relationship if we so wish.”
Summers, a sixth generation islander, warned that “Argentina might like to air-brush us out of existence.” Not likely, but the Falklands/Malvinas present an emotional and nationalistic rallying point to escalate political tensions in South America.
John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.