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The South Atlantic: Looking Ahead

A conference organised by the South Atlantic Council on 15 April 2011


A Short Summary of the Proceedings

An impressive array of speakers and of participants was assembled, including two former British ambassadors to Argentina, four former governors of the Falkland Islands, a former Argentine Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Deputy Foreign Minister, an Argentine professor of politics, two British professors, one specialising in defence and the other in competition and energy law, specialists in oil exploration and exploitation of the Antarctic and an expert on defence from the recently created Institute for Statecraft, besides long serving and very knowledgeable members of the Executive Committee of the SAC.

Sir Robin Christopher set the scene with a measured analysis of self-determination, of historic claims to the islands and current stagnation: "the solidification of the sovereignty dispute into immovable form". He believes that in the absence of a permanent solution, the dispute should be managed constructively without renouncing the claims; there is room for collaboration, given the will, in a number of areas. Not surprisingly, Dr John Hughes reasons on similar lines and concludes that management of the situation is the only possible course at present.

Professor Vicente Palermo refreshingly proposed, inter alia, that the sovereignty 'umbrella' be reinstated, that the wishes of the islanders be respected and that the Falklands/Malvinas question be removed from the top of the Cancillería's agenda.

Alastair Forsyth argued cogently for the dissolution of the UN Decolonisation Committee but no doubt Argentina would not wish to let an international platform disappear. To join the United Kingdom or become independent is the choice he offers the islanders but neither course is obviously acceptable to Argentina.

Richard Gott's exposition of leaseback, quoting other distinguished journalists such as Matthew Parris and Simon Jenkins and going back to Nicholas Ridley's inability to persuade Parliament in the years before the invasion, did not convince a former Governor that leaseback is the best solution.

Gwyn Prins and Christopher Donnelly considered defence and security very much in the light of the recent strategic defence review. The steady reduction in Britain's defence capability, since the Second World War, questions its tutelage role in the world. In any event, according to Mr Donnelly, military power does not of itself equate to security; greater reliance must be placed on intelligence and information. Professor Prins quoted, nostalgically, from Kipling's "Recessional", composed in 1897:

Far-called our navies melt away –
On dunes and headland sinks the fire –
Lo all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

There followed three very interesting talks about energy, the environment and the Antarctic. The search for oil north of the Falklands was central to this part of the conference. Professor Riley said there was no shortage of oil in the world nor any of gas, as shale gas has huge potential globally, so finding oil in the Falkland Islands is not critical. Mr Cartwright, who used to be employed by BP, said that small, independent oil companies were becoming increasingly important. There was agreement that on-land facilities were needed to service oil exploration and exploitation; sea platforms were not sufficient. As to royalties, a former Governor said these were expected to accrue to the islanders, at least in part.

Robert Headland's account of the history and consequences of the Antarctic Treaty, which came into force on 23 June 1961, has special relevance. The first of the Disposiciones Transitorias of the 1994 Constitution of Argentina asserts "the legitimate and imprescriptible sovereignty over the Malvinas, South Georgia and South Sandwich islands…as being an integral part of the national territory". South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands being above 60 degrees south of latitude, are not territories defined as being within the Antarctic region, where Argentina lays claim to South Shetland and South Orkney Islands.

Howard Pearce and Ambassador Fernando Petrella looked ahead from firmly entrenched, if opposed, positions. John Hughes did not think that UK relations with other Latin American countries would be seriously affected by the current situation, in spite of the Cancún declaration. He also thought that there was no effect on commercial relations between our two countries; I doubt, however, that major infrastructure projects, industrial or commercial ventures would be unaffected.

Throughout, members of the Falkland Islands Association listened attentively and took part constructively, as did the Argentine Chargé d'Affaires, Minister Osvaldo Mársico. Surely this whole exercise was witness to the good intentions of the South Atlantic Council. No mention was made of the sizeable British community in Argentina, for whom the South Atlantic conflict is a cause of sorrow and heart searching.

By the final question session it was plain that sovereignty continued to be the single contentious issue and that none of the suggested settlements was likely to prosper. "Devolved sovereignty", whereby Great Britain and Argentina declare that sovereignty lies with the Falkland Islands with no mention of from whence it comes and at the same time constituting a joint British-Argentine protectorate, was proposed and elicited mild comment from Howard Pearce. Nevertheless, I think that devolved sovereignty is a way for both countries elegantly to extricate themselves from a harmful situation without prejudicing the interests of the islanders.

Was the whole exercise worthwhile? It was useful for all the arguments to be rehearsed and Celia Szusterman is to be congratulated for acting as convenor so effectively. Ongoing historical research still to be published might provide incontrovertible evidence of one side's sovereignty claim, but it is doubtful that there would currently be any political will to test it in international law. Full diplomatic representation in both countries is desirable to take advantage of any change of circumstances which would permit negotiations to take place on one or more of the solutions proposed at the conference. In the meantime, there is no alternative but to 'manage' the situation, as has been said.

Alan Tabbush – 25 April 2011





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