It’s hardly the height of diplomatic craft, yet the governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom seem unable to resist rattling their sabers and provoking each other over the persistent and thorny issues surrounding a barren, windswept archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean.
The Malvinas, or the Falklands as they are known as on another rainy collection of islands, are in the headlines once more thanks to a recent series of semi-related, escalating events. At the start of the month, former NSA (National Security Agency) employee Edward Snowden’s latest emergence from his exile in Russia brought with it new revelations. Among them was proof that UK Intelligence, working with the US spying octopus that is NSA, were involved in a heavy surveillance campaign against the Argentine government.
This, while reprehensible, may not be particularly shocking news. After all, if the stunning whistle-blowing of recent years- in which Snowden’s role has been documented in the Oscar-winning Citizen Four– has shown us anything, it’s that everybody spies, and the US spies on everybody.
More abnormal and incendiary was the accompanying intelligence that, in tandem with the clandestine spying campaign, the UK government was attempting to influence public opinion in Argentina against the Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner administration. It did so through a full-throttle propaganda war of lies, aimed to undermine CFK’s outspoken stance over the islands’ sovereignty, using social media. The Intercept report, which published Snowden’s findings, said GCHQ (General Communications Headquarters- the UK equivalent to NSA) “has developed covert tools to seed the internet with false information, including the ability to manipulate the results of online polls, artificially inflate page view counts on websites, amplify sanctioned messages on Youtube and plant false Facebook wall posts for entire countries.”
The specifics of the spying details were also revealed; that GCHQ was ordered to gain “high priority military and leadership comms”, along with details about how worried the British government was to see regional opinion shifting to support Argentina over its claim to sovereignty over the islands: “GCHQ has consistently under-performed on Brazil, with growing concerns that South American attitudes are swinging behind Argentina.”
This is shameful behavior for a country that supposedly prides itself on a foreign policy based on democracy and dialogue. Yet the spying and anti-Argentine propaganda campaign has also been accompanied by more needlessly provocative gestures by the UK on the islands themselves.
First, British Defense Secretary Micheal Fallon under Prime Minister Cameron’s approval decided to increase the military presence on the islands by introducing new Surface to Air missile systems and Chinook helicopters. Plus, an extra £180 million from the Defense budget will be added to bolster the bristling armaments on the Malvinas. In a purely military sense this was an utterly pointless move, as a quick glance at Argentina’s military capabilities will demonstrate. Simply put, the Islands and their population are under no credible immediate security threat. What’s more, the current Argentine government has repeatedly insisted its opposition to the use of military force over the issue.
The fear-mongering warnings of imminent attack claimed by the legion right-wing press in the UK failed to convince otherwise. They were led by the Sun newspaper, a corporate tabloid now so pro- government (it’s the Conservative party in power after all) that it makes Pravda look like a paragon of balance and objectivity.
This is the same newspaper incidentally that proclaimed “Gotcha!” in one infamous headline during the war for the Islands in 1982. It was celebrating the news that Margaret Thatcher’s order to sink the Argentine warship Belgrano- fleeing at the time back towards Argentina- had been carried out, and 323 young Argentine conscripts forced into military service by the dictatorship were drowned.
The stench of Thatcher’s zombified legacy is still palpable. Its influence over British politics is suffocating enough. But it reaches further afield, touching this dispute too. Like Thatcher, Cameron appears to be using the Malvinas as a political top trump when he finds himself on the ropes at home.
Just weeks before the General Election that could well see his party ousted, the British Special Forces conducted “maneuvers” recently on the Islands in the latest piece of soldierly bicep flexing. Chest thumping military maneuvers, allied to mass propaganda and a state-aligned press group sounds more North Korea than United Kingdom. But that is the reality right now, and it does not paint the UK government in a favorable light at all.
For its own part, Cristina’s administration here in Argentina and its representatives in London responded with justifiable indignation to all these developments. Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said Britain’s actions “do not correspond to the world they publicly say that they want to live in, a republican world of respect and in which human rights are a fundamental pillar.”
Meanwhile, both countries have summoned each other’s ambassadors recently as the temperature of the row rises. To what ends, it remains to be seen.
The spying revelations and traditionally cyclical bouts of finger pointing over the Islands go a long way to explaining why we’re seeing tensions rise again. However, the root of political discourse can often be traced back to base economic realities like the need of every nation for resources and capital. The discovery of new oil under the sea surrounding the Malvinas, suspiciously in tandem with the anniversary of the invasion, added further fuel to the political fire.
Oil prospecting and exploitation in the area has been happening for years now, but when Premier Oil and Rockhopper (two British oil firms) revealed they had found fresh deposits under the ocean as they launched their 9-month drilling season, Argentina was quick to protest, claiming the region fell under Argentine territorial waters. This is a claim backed up last week by a judge from the Rio Grande province, who has decided to take on the case. So Argentina is now in the process of suing the powerful oil interests, adding to the list of international corporations it is fighting in the courts.
The UK government has reacted with typically hypocritical rhetoric. Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond called Argentina’s pursuit of legal channels “bullying” this weekend and demanded that it “stop this kind of behavior and start acting like a responsible member of the international community”. Conveniently, this chooses to ignore his own government’s systematic campaign to undermine Argentina through surveillance and lies.
Argentina’s main claim to the Islands- that they lie on the Argentine continental shelf and that Spain seceded their sovereignty once Argentina became independent in 1810- are robust. However, so too are the UK’s. It administered the Islands, for a time, before Argentina existed. The right to self-determination enshrined in the UN charter is also claimed, and the islanders, who have lived there for generations, overwhelmingly wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. The 2013 referendum proved as much by 1,513 votes to three.
President Fernández de Kirchner refused to recognize the referendum, and insists the right to self-determination doesn’t apply to the current inhabitants since they aren’t “indigenous”. But this inconvenient truth about the islanders’ wishes won’t go away. Dismissing this important sticking point each time her government stresses the need for dialogue over the sovereignty dispute appears worryingly like sticking her head in the sand.
So where does that leave us? Over this difficult issue, the UK government has been shamelessly belligerent and covert in seeking to undermine Argentina over the issue that’s important and emotive to every Argentine. Buenos Aires, meanwhile, reiterates its claims and rejects the use of military force, but nonetheless refuses to hear the other side, including the current inhabitants of the islands, at all.
Whatever the future brings, antagonizing each other and so risking another conflict can’t be the best way forward. Wars have been started for less than these current political transgressions and this remote archipelago is not worth the cost of more human lives. If regional opinion is indeed swinging behind Argentina’s claim, then Cristina and whoever her successor may be ought to be patient. Argentina has a sound basis for negotiating, and so can afford to resist rising too petulantly to British provocation.
Pursuit of diplomacy and appealing to international law and NGO’s, as recent Argentine Presidents have done year on year at the UN, is the peaceable and therefore preferable option. Raising the ghost of a tragic war by further militarizing the region, antagonizing the opposite nation and stoking up the possibility of conflict again is as dangerous as it is irresponsible. Whatever government the United Kingdom winds up with by next month, rejecting this current approach to the South Atlantic would be a good way to demonstrate the multilateral and democratic values Britain purports to uphold internationally.