South Atlantic Council
Promoting communication and understanding
About Us The Early Years
The South Atlantic Council was formed in December 1983 with the immediate aim of improving relations between Britain, Argentina and the Falkland Islanders and the long-term aim of resolving the sovereignty dispute, in a manner that is acceptable to all three parties. The Council originated from two strands of interest in the issue. Firstly, just before the announcement of the June 1983 general election, the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs had been studying what options there were for the future of the Islands. The work was completed and the report was written and agreed, but it was not published because the election intervened. The Committee had unanimously agreed that there should be a negotiated settlement with Argentina and that "Fortress Falkland" was not tenable in the long-run. Secondly, Professor John Burton, an academic specialising in the study of conflict and its resolution wanted to bring together people involved in the dispute. He convened a private conference, at the University of Maryland in September 1983, of a small number of politicians, diplomats and academics from Britain, Argentina, the United States and the Islands.
George Foulkes MP (Labour) and Cyril Townsend MP (Conservative) had served on the Select Committee and went to Maryland. Dr Walter Little from Liverpool University and Professor Chris Mitchell from City University also went to Maryland. These four individuals decided that they should keep in contact and form a group to keep the issue on the agenda in British politics. The result was the creation of the South Atlantic Council, as a group of 50 people each with specialist involvement in the issue. It included Members of Parliament from all the main parties in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, former diplomats, academics, business people and church leaders. It is a discreet lobby rather than a mass campaigning group and so was not well known, though Cyril Townsend and George Foulkes rapidly became major media contacts on the issue.
With a grant from three Quaker trusts it was possible to appoint one full-time person, Dr Alaine Low, from April 1984 to March 1987. Apart from the original Quaker grants, the annual budget provided by members subscriptions was small and continues to be so. Companies sometimes meet travel, accommodation or other expenses for specific events.
The Impact of the Political Contacts Made by the SAC
The major early activities included two more Maryland meetings, substantial cultivation of contacts, a visit to Buenos Aires by Cyril Townsend, George Foulkes and Lord Kennet in June 1984 and a visit to the Islands by Alaine Low in February 1985, during which she interviewed 145 of the Islanders. The third Maryland meeting in February 1985 produced a joint statement demonstrating the possibility of agreement. This increased the willingness and the confidence of Argentine politicians to deal with British politicians. Also in early 1985 there was a great step forward in Argentinas foreign relations, with the negotiation of a settlement to the Beagle Channel dispute with Chile; its endorsement by a referendum; and ratification by the Senate.
Change in the Argentine official position rapidly and clearly became evident. In September 1985, Neil Kinnock (then the leader of the Labour Party) met President Alfonsin at the Socialist International in Paris and in October 1985 David Steel (then the leader of the Liberal Party) met Alfonsin at the Liberal International in Madrid. The SAC was involved in both these meetings and at each one an agreed statement was produced. For the annual debate at the United Nations General Assembly in November, the Argentines changed tactics compared to the previous three years. They dropped the direct call for Britain to negotiate about sovereignty, talking instead of the problems pending , including all aspects of the future of the Falkland Islands, and they dropped Latin American Group sponsorship of the resolution, using instead a mixed group of seven developing countries. The result was a change in the Assemblys voting from 89 in favour to 9 against with 54 abstentions in 1984, to 107 in favour to 4 against with 41 abstentions in 1985. The British government had become highly isolated on this question.
Argentine Politicians are brought to London
The Council had during the MPs visit to Buenos Aires issued an invitation to Congressional leaders to come on a return visit to London. Suddenly the atmosphere became much more positive and following hectic problems of communication through a postal strike and holidays in both countries the visit was arranged. The delegation was in London for the week of 17-21 February 1986, and consisted of two leaders from each of the main parties and each house of the legislature. They were
The high spot of the week was a discussion at the House of Commons under the auspices of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (British Section), where they made a favourable impression on leading Tory backbenchers. In addition they had separate meetings with MPs from the other main parties, including Kinnock, Healey, Steel, Beith and Owen, members of the Select Committees on Foreign Affairs and on Defence and party spokesmen on Latin America. During their stay they also met the members of the South Atlantic Council, the United Nations Association; university academics specialising on Latin America, church leaders and the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Search for Reconciliation in the 1990s
After these exchanges, the Council sought progress on two specific questions. Firstly, those in Argentina who had lost sons, brothers or husbands in the 1982 war needed help to come to terms with their grief by being able to visit the war graves on the islands. This was seen as being of direct and immediate value of itself. It was also seen to be an act of reconciliation between the two countries which were recently at war. Secondly, there was also a interest in avoiding overfishing in the area and an attempt to promote joint management of the fishing stocks in the South-West Atlantic. The Council contributed to the political change that made possible visits of the bereaved to the Islands. After diplomatic relations between Britain and Argentina were resumed in 1990, bi-lateral co-operation on fishing did develop, but there was no progress towards negotiating a multilateral fishing agreement.
Copyright: South Atlantic Council, 2012.
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Page maintained by Peter Willetts [P dot Willetts at city dot ac dot uk]
Page published on 2 March 2011 and re-formatted 25 February 2012.