Falkland Islands: What are the competing claims?

Panorama of the Falklands

Nearly three decades after the Falklands War, tensions between the UK and Argentina have resurfaced. The UK insists the Falkland Islands are rightfully the UK's. The Argentine government maintains the islands, which it calls Las Malvinas, belong to it. But what are the details of each side's legal, historical and geographical claims for ownership?

The disputed islands

Tricky question Argentina's view of Las Malvinas Britain's view of the Falklands

Compiled by Vanessa Barford, Caroline Hocking and Megan Lane

Who got there first?

The Argentine Ministry of Foreign Relations says the Malvinas were discovered by members of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan's expedition in 1520, and that he was navigating at the service of Spain. However, he did not land on the islands.

The British government makes much of the first known landing, which was by British naval Captain John Strong in 1690.

He named the Islands after Viscount Falkland, who was his patron at the time and shortly afterwards became First Lord of the Admiralty.

Who settled first?

San Carlos, Falkland Islands

Argentina says France established the settlement of Port Louis in 1764, but Spain objected and won recognition of its right to the Malvinas. After it was handed over in 1767, "there was always a Spanish governor residing in the Malvinas who reported to the authorities of Buenos Aires".

It says a "clandestine" British expedition arrived in 1765 and established a fort in 1766. It says Spain expelled the settlers by force in 1770, but an agreement meant they were later allowed to resettle. It also claims the British Crown struck a secret deal with Spain to leave Port Egmont in 1774, and "from then on, the Spanish authorities continued to exercise their jurisdiction and control over the whole archipelago".

A small French colony, Port Louis, was established on East Falkland in 1764 and handed to the Spanish three years later. A British expedition reached Port Egmont, in the West Falkland, in 1765, and "took formal possession of it and of 'all the neighbouring islands' for King George III".

Another British expedition established a settlement of about 100 people at Port Egmont in 1766, and although it withdrew on economic grounds in 1774, "sovereignty was never relinquished or abandoned".

Britain says the Spanish settlement on East Falkland was withdrawn in 1811, "leaving the islands without inhabitants or any form of government".

How close geographically?

About 300 miles (480km)

Map of the islands

About 8,000 miles (13,000km)

Map of the Falkland Islands in relation to the UK

Why claim ownership?

Protest by Argentina's war veterans

Argentina says it has a right to the Malvinas because it inherited the islands from the Spanish crown, bolstered by the French concession in 1767.

It also says the British left the Malvinas in 1774 and "remained silent for over 50 years", only objecting when a newly-independent Argentina made a series of actions in support of their sovereignty in the 1820s.

It has also based its claim on the islands' proximity to the South American mainland.

Britain argues its case on its long-term administration of the islands and on the principle of self-determination for the residents.

It says the islands have been continuously, peacefully and effectively inhabited and administered by Britain since 1833.

What are the legal claims?

Union flag flies in the islands

Succession to territorial title provides the basis for the Argentinian claim, says Dr Marko Milanovic, of the University of Nottingham's School of Law. Argentina says Spain acquired ownership and upon its independence from Spain, that title was inherited by Argentina.

But the UK says Spain's claim has lapsed, because Spain abandoned its outposts in the islands.

"There is therefore both a legal and a factual dispute: first, under what conditions exactly can title over territory be abandoned, and second, did Spain in fact abandon it."

Both sides have some good arguments, he says, and if it ever went to court, it is far from clear who would win.

"International law does not overwhelmingly favour either Argentina or the UK. That is, among other reasons, why neither state is willing to submit the case to adjudication and bear the risk of losing it."

Several modes of acquisition of territory are recognised in international law, says Dr Milanovic. The prior discovery of an uninhabited island and its first effective occupation is one of these, but in this case both the exact legal parameters and the facts can be disputed.

Prescription - or the acquisition of title through a long passage of time without protest by the adverse state - is recognised by international law, but again there are contentious legal and factual points.

Self-determination hinges on the difficult question of whether the current population legally constitutes a "people", since only peoples - and not national minorities, of which there is also no universally accepted definition as whether factors like self-identification, or identification by others, culture and language play a part is disputed - are entitled to self-determination. "Are, for example, the populations of Jersey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man 'peoples' under international law? The answer is not clear."

What do the inhabitants want?

Falkland Islands

Argentina says the principle of self-determination does not apply to the Malvinas.

Its foreign ministry says there must be a legitimate relationship between that population and the concerned territory. It says no such relationship exists in the Malvinas, as British colonists "occupied the islands by force in 1833, expelled the people that had settled there and did not allow their return, thus violating the territorial integrity of Argentina".

It cites the sixth paragraph of UN resolution 1514, which says "any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations", and argues that the limitation imposed upon the right to self-determination means that it yields to respect for the territorial integrity.

Falkland Islanders have repeatedly made known their wish to remain British, according to the Foreign Office, which cites an Argentine-inspired poll, conducted in 1994, which revealed that 87% of them would be against any form of discussion with Argentina over sovereignty, under any circumstances.

It says people who live in the Falklands are fully entitled to enjoy the right of self-determination, and it is committed to defending their right to choose their own future. Self-determination is a right that cannot be applied selectively or be open to negotiation - it is recognised in the UN Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It also rejects Argentina's argument that the islanders do not enjoy the right of self-determination "on the (false) basis that they replaced an indigenous Argentine population expelled by force". It says there was no indigenous or settled population until British settlement.

What do leaders say?

Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has repeatedly requested talks on the islands' future and accused the UK of "arrogance" for refusing to negotiate.

"In the 21st Century [Britain] continues to be a crude colonial power in decline."

Prime Minister David Cameron has said the Falklands will stay British for as long as the islanders want.

"What the Argentinians have been saying recently, I would argue, is actually far more like colonialism because these people want to remain British and the Argentinians want them to do something else."

Natural resources?

Sheep and a penguin

The islands are self-financing, relying on fishing, sheep farming and tourism, with penguins, which breed there in their millions, a main attraction.

Oil exploration has been controversial. Drilling in 1998 found limited supplies under the sea, and in February 2010 tensions between the Anglo-Argentinian governments stirred after a UK company (Desire Petroleum) began drilling north of the coast.

Buenos Aires has accused Britain of breaking a UN resolution forbidding unilateral development in disputed waters.

When exploration plans were first announced, former UK Defence Minister Bill Rammell said the government had a "legitimate right" to build an oil industry there.

In September 2011, UK company Rockhopper Exploration said it hoped to begin oil production in the region in early 2016 and to have a maximum output of 120,000 barrels a day by 2018.

What do commentators say?

Argentine Dr Celia Szusterman of the South Atlantic Council, which seeks better UK-Argentine relations, says Argentina's claim is not going away. A 1994 article of the constitution commits every Argentine government to pursue, by peaceful and diplomatic means, its claim over Las Malvinas.

But Dr Szusterman notes some Argentine intellectuals have questioned the claims - "not in historical terms, but (in terms of) why can't we leave them in peace".

She argues Argentina does not need the islands for economic, cultural or political reasons. But she believes it makes sense for islanders to have a better relationship with Argentina.

"I'm not bothered about the sovereignty of nationality, let them be what they want to be, but from economic, cultural and political point of view, or from a health point of view, it makes sense to fly to Argentina than back to Britain," she says.

Former Daily Mail foreign correspondent Ann Leslie argues: "The whole of Britain thinks we've expended so much blood and treasure keeping hold of it, why would we hand it back now?"

She believes the recent war of words is down to the fact the Argentinian economy is in a mess and President Kirchner "knows that having a row with foreign powers is good for her".

It is also about oil, she argues: "Argentina's nervous that they're not going to get their cut"

However, the Guardian's Simon Jenkins believes it is absurd for such a tiny island to exert such influence on British foreign policy, arguing that the Islands "cost a fortune to defend" and it is time to "hand them back".

He adds: "The current situation of sending William, a submarine and the MPs, is totally absurd. It's rubbing the Argentine noses in humiliation, I can't see what diplomatic purpose it serves."

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