Today is the 25th anniversary of the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. Here's my piece from today's The Australian on why the British action to liberate the islands was, unlike subsequent military interventions, both legal and just.
Back then, British military action was legal and just.
Twenty-five years after the Falklands War, it's important to remember why Margaret Thatcher's government was right to stand up to Argentinian aggression
April 02, 2007
"We were defending ... principles of fundamental importance to the whole world: above all, that aggressors should never succeed and that international law should prevail over the use of force."
- British prime minister Margaret Thatcher
IT'S not often you'll find an unreconstructed leftie such as me quoting with approval the words of Margaret Thatcher, but as we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War, there is a very good reason for doing so.
The Iron Lady may have been wrong about many things, but she was right to stand up to the aggression of Argentina's fascist dictator Leopoldo Galtieri and send a taskforce to regain the Falkland Islands in 1982.
Let's remind ourselves of the facts. The conflict was triggered by the occupation of the small British dependency of South Georgia, about 1400 km south of the Falklands, on March 19, 1982, by a 50-strong group of Argentinian scrap metal merchants, who proceeded to raise their country's flag. This deliberately provocative and illegal act was the prelude to a full-scale Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands on April 2.
The 78 Royal Marines already based on the islands put up a valiant defence, but the islands' governor, Rex Hunt, had little option but to surrender to an overwhelmingly superior force.
The news of the islands' capture caused shock waves in London. In a heated emergency debate in the House of Commons, the government was blamed, quite rightly, for not taking the threats of invasion seriously enough, and for its pre-invasion appeasement of Argentina.
Back in 1980, foreign office minister Nicholas Ridley, doing his best Neville Chamberlain impression, had tried unsuccessfully to get parliament to agree to lease the islands to Argentina. The announcement in 1981 that the ice patrol ship Endurance was to be removed from the South Atlantic on grounds of economy also appeared to demonstrate the government's lack of interest in the islands' future.
But although the Thatcher government must take the blame for the humiliating loss of the Falklands, its response to Argentina's invasion was commendably decisive. By April 5, a formidable taskforce had been assembled, which entered Falklands waters 17 days later.
All the time negotiations for a peaceful settlement continued, but Argentina's rejection of UN resolution 502, which stipulated that the occupiers withdraw all their forces before negotiations could begin, meant that military conflict was inevitable.
In truth, withdrawal was never an option for Galtieri, for whom seizure of the "Malvinas" was a desperate attempt to divert domestic attention from a deepening economic crisis, with inflation in Argentina running at 130 per cent per annum. In two months of fierce fighting, 907 people (including 255 British servicemen and women) lost their lives. But to great rejoicing, on June 14 the Union Jack was once again flying over Port Stanley.
Although it enjoyed overwhelming public support in Britain, Thatcher's campaign to reclaim the Falklands did have its critics. The islands rightfully belonged to Argentina, they argued (the line taken by Jeane Kirkpatrick, the US ambassador to the UN, who attended a reception at the Argentinian embassy a few hours after the invasion) and the British action was imperialistic.
They were wrong on both counts. The first British landing on the islands took place in 1690 and British settlers have occupied the Falklands continuously since 1833. At no point has Buenos Aires held legal title to the islands.
As for the "imperialistic" jibe, it was Argentina that, by illegally invading the islands, was acting as the imperial power, as Peter Shore, the Labour Opposition's foreign affairs spokesman, forcefully argued in 1982.
There was also the issue of self-determination: the vast majority of the Falkland Islands' 1800 inhabitants wanted to remain British and had no desire to live under an Argentinian military dictatorship whose opponents routinely "disappeared".
I supported the war to liberate the Falklands and continue to defend it for the same reasons that I opposed the wars against Yugoslavia in 1999 and Iraq in 2003. As Thatcher said, aggressors should never succeed and international law should always prevail. In 1982, Argentina was the aggressor. In 1999 and in 2003, it was Britain (and its allies). No one can support the Falklands War on the grounds of upholding international law and respecting national sovereignty, yet at the same time support the illegal attacks on Yugoslavia and Iraq. And, conversely, no one who opposed the wars against Yugoslavia and Iraq on the grounds of upholding international law and respecting sovereignty can logically oppose the campaign to regain the Falklands.
The Falklands War was not only legal and just, it also had positive consequences for the people of Argentina. The defeat of the invaders hastened the fall of Galtieri and his brutal military junta and paved the way for the return of democracy and the rule of law. And there's one more important point worth considering. Because Argentina had been the aggressor and Britain was acting in self-defence, the British public was overwhelmingly supportive of the military action.
Contrast this with the war against Iraq. Tony Blair never had the same level of public backing as Thatcher, because in 2003 it was the coalition who fired the first shots, not the Iraqis.
Britain occupied not just the legal but the moral high ground in 1982. Sadly, the same thing can not be said of its later military campaigns.
Neil Clark teaches International Relations at Oxford Tutorial College in England.