Why does an archipelago off the coast of Argentina belong to the UK?

David Cameron is first British foreign secretary to visit the Falkland Islands in 30 years.

An aerial view of West Falkland island, one of the Falkland Islands, where UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron is visiting [Sergio Pitamitz/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images]

The British foreign secretary arrived in the Falkland Islands on Monday to “reiterate the UK’s commitment to uphold the Islanders’ right of self-determination” in the face of Argentinian claims of sovereignty over the archipelago.

David Cameron, who was prime minister of the UK from 2010 to 2016 when he resigned following the Brexit referendum, is the first UK foreign secretary to visit the British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic in 30 years. He was visiting ahead of his participation in the G20 Foreign Ministers meeting in Brazil on Wednesday.

Cameron’s visit included a helicopter tour of the islands and the 1982 Falklands War battle sites.

Despite being very nearly 13,000 kilometres (8,000 miles) from UK shores, with a population of only 3,200 people, the Falklands have occupied a weighty place in the British psyche ever since the islands became a 10-week battleground between British and Argentinian troops 42 years ago.

Before his trip to the territory, Cameron made clear that British jurisdiction over the Falklands, the two major islands of which are East Falkland and West Falkland, is non-negotiable, “The Falkland Islands are a valued part of the British family, and we are clear that as long as they want to remain part of the family, the issue of sovereignty will not be up for discussion.”

So why are the Falklands a British Overseas Territory and could they ever be handed over to Argentina?

David Cameron
David Cameron, UK foreign secretary, right, on the opening day of the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on Friday, February 16, 2024, days before visiting the Falkland Islands where he stated that British sovereignty of the archipelago is ‘not up for discussion’ [Alex Kraus/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

How did the Falklands become a British Overseas Territory?

Several powers have laid claim to the islands since Englishman Captain John Strong made his landing there in 1690, naming the territory after his patron, Viscount Falkland.

Over the centuries since then, the United Kingdom, Argentina, France and Spain have all established settlements on this nearly treeless group of islands where some one million penguins nest each summer.

The UK has governed since 1833 and bases its claim to the islands on its longstanding presence there, as well as on the political will of the overwhelmingly pro-British islanders themselves.

What is the basis of Argentina’s claim to the Falklands?

Argentina has long disputed the UK’s right of sovereignty over the islands.

The South American state maintains that it inherited the islands, known in Argentina as Las Malvinas, from the Spanish crown in the early 1800s, and that their close proximity to the Argentinian mainland is reason enough for its claim.

Alasdair Pinkerton, associate professor in geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, told Al Jazeera that Argentinian claims of sovereignty over the Falklands remain “deeply ingrained within Argentine politics and society, inculcated through the education system, street signage, banknotes and the Argentina constitution”.

The dispute between Argentina and the UK reached a crisis point on April 2, 1982, when Argentina invaded the islands in a bid to take control of the archipelago. After a UK military task force was dispatched by then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to win back the territory, 74 days of conflict ensued. The UK prevailed, but 655 Argentinian and 255 British servicemen were killed in the conflict.

Argentina Malvinas sign
A sign for the Malvinas Argentinas stands in the Los Cardales National Park in Valles Calchaquies, Salta, Argentina on March 22, 2023 [Ricardo Ceppi/Getty Images]

What do the islanders want?

In a bid to push back against intensifying Argentinian claims over the territory, Falklanders went to the polls on March 10 and 11, 2013 to vote on the following question, “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?”

More than 90 percent of those eligible to vote turned out. Out of the 1,517 votes cast, 1,513 voted in favour of remaining a British territory.

But Alicia Castro, the then-Argentinian ambassador to London, dismissed the referendum as “a ploy that has no legal value”.

“Negotiations are in the islanders’ best interests,” she told an Argentinian radio station following the result. “We don’t want to deny them their identity. They’re British, we respect their identity and their way of life and that they want to continue to be British. But the territory they occupy is not British.”

Could there be another war over the Falklands?

During a TV election debate last year, Argentina’s far-right populist President Javier Milei, elected in November 2023, dismissed any notion of a future war, “It is clear that the war option is not a solution. We had a war – that we lost – and now we have to make every effort to recover the islands through diplomatic channels.”

However, Pinkerton said, “In reality, I suspect that Milei is not hugely motivated by the Falklands/Malvinas as an issue – it’s a distraction from his economic libertarian project – but feels the political need to perform an interest to assuage public demand.”

But, while Pinkerton could not “envisage another 1982-style conflict any time in the foreseeable future” either, he added, “You can’t fully eliminate the possibility of some kind of confrontation if the conditions were right and there was a distinct trigger event, especially as the world becomes increasingly multipolar.”

Pinkerton explained that issues such as the “growing challenge of overfishing” in the so-called Blue Hole – a disputed area of water close to the Falklands, and the uncertain future of the Antarctic Treaty’s Environmental Protocol when it comes up for review in 2048, “all bring challenges for diplomacy and security in the South Atlantic in coming decades”.

Source: Al Jazeera